Political ties re-shape Caucasian rail network

3rd May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The project aims to carry one million passengers and 6.5 million tonnes of goods in 2011 when the railway is to become operational, and three million passengers and 17 million tonnes of goods in 2034.

Kars -- As Turkey and Armenia move forward to mend fences, competition is heating up on both sides of the border to snatch up the Trans-Caucasian freight market.

Turkey has been part of a project launched in 2004 to build a railway from its eastern city of Kars to Tbilisi and then Baku, vying for a pivotal role in linking western Europe to Central and Far East Asia.

The project aims to carry one million passengers and 6.5 million tonnes of goods in 2011 when the railway is to become operational, and three million passengers and 17 million tonnes of goods in 2034.

Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan have planned a budget of 450 million dollars for this new Silk Road and their presidents have held joint ceremonies to promote the project, but work on the ground has proved difficult.

Construction on the Turkish side, which began in July, has been delayed by severe weather conditions during winter and a rough terrain dominated by plateaus and mountains.

"To complete the project on time, we worked all through the winter, day and night, at temperatures of -35 degrees C (-31 F)," said Yasar Unlu, project director at Baycel, the company building the 76-kilometer (47-mile) section of the link from Kars to the Georgian border.

The 400-strong Baycel team -- whose number will reach 1,000 in May -- has so far managed only to dig trenches for the railway and has just begun laying concrete reinforcements.

And the cost has been climbing: "We started out with an estimated cost of 300 million Turkish liras (181 million dollars, 140 million euros) for the Turkish section, but now we think the final cost will reach 450 million Turkish liras," Unlu told AFP.

Georgia has to build 26 kilometres (16 miles) of new rails to connect with the existing network and "work has started and is continuing on this new section," Unlu added.

The Turkish team admitted that one of the aims of the project was to bypass Armenia whose railroad to Turkey, linking the landlocked former Soviet nation to the west, has been cut off for more than a decade amid political tensions.

"Our objective is to create a loop-line and not go through Armenia because it is a country that poses problems," team supervisor Zafer Karatas said.

Yerevan says Ottoman Turks committed genocide against their Armenian subjects, massacring up to 1.5 million people. Ankara categorically rejects the accusations.

In 1993, Turkey also shut its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan in its conflict with Yerevan over the Nagorny Karabakh enclave.

The closure of the border also spelled the end of railway travel between Kars and the western Armenian town of Gyumri.

But prospects of reconciliation were boosted Wednesday as Turkey and Armenia announced they had agreed a "roadmap" on normalising ties in ongoing negotiations.

In Armenia, the South Caucasian Railways -- a Russian company in charge of the local railway network -- is already preparing for a possible re-opening of the Kars-Gyumri link should the dialogue process bears fruit.

"The line between Gyumri and the Turkish border was already renovated before the visit of Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Yerevan in September," said a company source, who requested anonymity, adding that rehabilitation work was also underway on other sections of the Armenian network.

Gul became the first Turkish president to visit Armenia when he accepted an invitation from Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian to watch a football match.

US President Barack Obama lent support to the fence-mending efforts when he visited Ankara in April, calling for a swift normalisation of ties.

Nevertheless, Unlu underlined that "a change in Turkish-Armenian relations should not put the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku project in jeopardy."


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