How the Caspian Sea is Becoming a Rail Corridor
History was quietly made on August 3, when the first test container train, the “Nomad Express” arrived from Kazakhstan’s Aktau seaport via ferry to Baku International Sea Port in Alat, 40 miles south of Baku on Azerbaijan’s Caspian coast. The Nomad Express started from China’s Shikhezi and crossed the border into Kazakhstan via Dostik. The container train took five days to journey cover the 2,200 miles to Kazakhstan Caspian port of Aktau, where it was loaded onto a ferry for the final voyage to Alat.
The genesis of Nomad Express’s journey began last January, when the first meeting of the working group of Coordination Committee of Trans-Caspian international transport route was held in Baku, where participants reached agreement on adopting measures to organizing container service on the China-Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey route by using Kazakhstan’s new Zhezkazgan-Beineu railway line, the facilities of Aktau port, as well as the Georgia-Turkey Akhalkalaki-Kars railway line then nearing completion as a segment of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
With the introduction of the new rail route from China through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, China and Kazakhstan are working to more than double containerized cargo bound for Europe from its current annual level of 100,000 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU), a standard-sized metal box 20 feet long intermodal cargo container, to 250,000 TEUs per year.
At the time the Baku International Sea Port in Alat was first proposed, there were six international trade ports on the Caspian: Baku (Azerbaijan), Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan), Aktau (Kazakhstan), Astrakhan (Russia), Enzeli and Neka (Iran.)
Kazakhstan’s national railway company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy head Askar Mamin has noted that since 2012, growing cooperation between Kazakhstan and China has increased container traffic moving to Europe from China via Kazakhstan by 1,200 percent. As for the future, during a ceremony welcoming the Nomad Express, Mamin said, “Considering the expected commodity turnover between the countries in the region, the potential of container shipping of the Trans-Caspian route is estimated at 300,000 TEU by 2020.”
This potential, according to Mamin, can be realized only through a consorted effort of all the participants of the transport chain – China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, including railway operators, Caspian ports, shipping companies and terminals providing transportation solutions and competitive pricing policies along the route. Georgia is actively seeking to capture a portion of the transit trade, with the Georgian government upgrading its Black Sea coast port infrastructure beyond Poti and Batumi, by constructing a new deep-sea port in Anaklia. In addition, a railway modernization project began in 2011, to modernize the central rail line from Tbilisi to the ports of Poti and Batumi, is scheduled for completion in 2019.
As for the future, Kazakhstan and China are preparing to open a new border crossing that will decrease the transit time from eastern ports of China to Almaty to six days.
China is not relying solely on routes through Kazakhstan, however. Far East Land Bridge (FELB), responsible for the biggest portion of container trains between China and Europe, is preparing a new container train route between Suzhou and Georgia’s Black Sea port Poti. Later this month the inaugural train will begin its journey in Suzhou, in southeastern Jiangsu province, about 62 miles northwest of Shanghai. Enter Russia via Zabaikalsk/Manzhouli border crossing, then utilize the Trans-Siberian, skirting the western coast of the Caspian to reach Baku before moving west to end at Poti in a 15-day journey. Instead of TEUs, the service will mainly use 40-foot FELB containers. FELB’s first China-Europe container trains began in 2007, with regular trains starting the following year.
The Suzhou-Poti train will be a challenge for Kazakhstan, which has been heavily investing to increase its share of China’s Eurasian rail traffic. A disadvantage of the FELB Suzhou-Poti train is a longer route when bypassing Kazakhstan, but it saves money by not needing a ferry to cross the Caspian.
As for the future of the Suzhou-Poti trains, FELB Head of Operations Amina Jahic said, “We already had speed trains with a transit time of only 12 or 13 days. However it’s too early to guarantee this term but we’re working on it.”
The Caspian train ferry route and Suzhou-Poti trains are the most recent evidence of China’s increasing presence in post-Soviet Eurasia, a development largely welcomed there, as the post-Soviet Central Asian and Caucasian nations have long been overly dependent upon economic ties with Russia. This dependency has led to their economies underperforming, due largely to substandard, aging Soviet-era infrastructural networks. As far back as the mid-1990s China began to perceive Central Asia’s geopolitical and economic potential, and initial steps taken two decades ago have resulted in deepening economic ties between China and Central Asia.
China has built or is building an infrastructural network that includes beyond rail networks highways, pipelines, dams, bridges and telecommunication stations, a process that has intensified since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his “New Silk Road” concept in 2013 during visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia.
The clearest proof of the quickening international pace of development came on October 16-17, Georgia hosted an inaugural Silk Road Forum in Tbilisi, attended by more than 1,000 participants from all over the world, in particular nations scattered along the ancient Silk Road from Georgia to China. Among those attending were government officials from 30 countries, personnel from 20 major international financial and donor organizations and representatives from 300 Chinese major companies.
China’s willingness to invest in the Eurasian infrastructure to construct a new “Silk Road” is making the concept a reality; as the dueling Caspian ferry and Suzhou-Europe train routes indicate, the only uncertainty is which routes will ultimately prevail.