On November 27, 2023, it became known about beginning of the construction of a new railroad in Kazakhstan. Construction is underway in the Turkestan Region, the southernmost region of the country. The length of the section under construction (Darbaza-Maktaaral station) is 152 kilometers, which is difficult to call a large-scale project for such a big country as Kazakhstan. The second phase of the project involves connection of the new railroad branch with the Uzbekistan railroad network through the border station Zhetysai.
As the President of the Republic Kassym-Jomart Tokayev notes, this project is aimed at developing not only the transport, but also the transit potential of the country. This suggests that the plans for the development of the new road include the possibility of its use within the framework of international transit corridors, the projects of which have been actively emerging in Central Asia and in the last 10 years. Expansion of transit potential is a very important task for Kazakhstan: half of the total volume of cargo delivered by rail along the China-Europe route already passes through the country. 2023 in this regard has become very indicative: for the first ten months of the year, the volume of transit traffic through Kazakhstan, according to the Ministry of Transport, increased by 19%. Nevertheless, several new transit corridors within the most promising Eurasian China-Europe route pass by the republic. These transit corridors pass through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In this regard, prospective North-South corridors, aimed at linking Russia with countries of the region and the states of South Asia, are of particular importance for the implementation of Kazakhstan’s transit potential. Indeed, a look at a map of the most promising transit projects in the region and the existing rail lines reveals a number of new opportunities created by the road discussed in this article, both for Kazakhstan and a number of other countries.
First of all, the Darbaza-Maktaaral railroad will significantly optimize the flow of cargo between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. At present, it is almost entirely supported by the Saryagash border junction station, through which the lion’s share of the total volume of cargo passing through the state border of the two countries passes. This volume, in turn, is quite significant: for example, in the first 10 months of 2023, almost 26 million tons of cargo were transported across the border (which is 16% more than the totals of last year). This figure is already very close to the capacity limit of the current rail line connecting the two countries.
However, congestion at the border junction station is not the only problem in this matter: passing the state border, the railroad almost immediately bumps into the railroad junction of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Given the size of the capital of Uzbekistan (which is the largest metropolis in Central Asia with the largest agglomeration) and its location at the crossroads of the region’s major international rail routes (Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan, China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan), excessive congestion on the Uzbek section of the existing Kyzylorda-Shymkent-Tashkent road becomes a significant problem. And in this situation, the new railroad being built in Kazakhstan is able to redistribute this load: it bypasses the Tashkent railroad hub, passing west of the city in an almost straight line.
Due to the above-mentioned peculiarity of the new railway line, it is in demand for international transit in a number of directions: Thus, for Kazakhstan, the new road section will become part of the most convenient and shortest route between the central part of the country and Turkmenistan, as well as Iran. In addition, the new railway line will increase capacity and reduce travel time on North-South routes, where Kazakhstan can play the role of the most efficient transit country: for example, the Darbaza-Maktaaral railroad can expand rail transit opportunities from Russia to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan within the international corridors CAREC 6b and CAREC 6c. Also, the new section of the road can simplify access to Iranian ports of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman for part of the Volga, Ural and Volga-Vyatka economic regions of the Russian Federation, and, given the recent resumption of work on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan railroad, to the ports of the Arabian Sea.
Thus, the new Darbaza-Maktaaral railway section, despite its insignificant length on the Eurasian scale, will be able to play a significant role in the optimization of bilateral and multilateral transport corridors, the benefits of which can potentially receive a number of states – from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.