Modernisation of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway with focus on Middle Corridor
    Review by Caliber.Az

    ANALYTICS  29 May 2023 - 12:01

    Khazar Akhundov

    The recent geopolitical changes encourage the countries of the Caspian Sea region to deepen transport cooperation, removing bottlenecks in the logistics of the Middle Corridor.

    Azerbaijan, the key logistic hub of the region, is solving similar problems; it has started a large-scale modernisation and increased the capacity of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad on the Georgian section. According to the disseminated information of CJSC Azerbaijan Railways (AZD), these works will be accelerated as much as possible.

    After the completion of the works next year, the transhipment capacity of the BTK will increase to 5 million tons of cargo per year, and this potential is mainly oriented to the growing transit between Türkiye, Central Asian countries and China. 

    The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars "steel" mainline, which was launched in October 2017 with a total length of 829 km, was integrated into almost all the routes of the Middle Corridor in a relatively short time, including turning into a critical component of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) created in 2018, designed for the transportation of non-oil products, including multimodal containerised cargo.

    Today Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, along with Kazakhstan, actively use the potential of the BTK as part of several trans-Caspian routes. And since 2019, China has been actively exploring this potential as part of its "One Belt, One Road" initiative by organising the movement of block trains to transship container cargo to Türkiye and further to the Middle East and Europe.

    The advantages of the BTK line include the relatively short distance across Azerbaijan and Georgia and the climatic conveniences that ensure stable operation of rolling stock in winter.

    In comparison, it takes 40 to 60 days to transship cargo from Europe to Asia through the Suez Canal or around Africa, and it takes more than 30 days to deliver cargo from China to Europe in transit via Russia along the Northern Corridor. With the use of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, deliveries from Asia to Türkiye via the South Caucasus could take 15 days.

    According to the estimates of Türkiye’s Former Transport, Shipping and Communications Minister Ahmet Arslan, since the start of BTK’s operation, just over 2.4 million tons of cargo have been transshipped through this highway. Thus, on average, during the five years of operation, about half a million tons of cargo have been handled annually, and this rate cannot be called sufficient, especially taking into account the design capacity of this branch, initially estimated at between three and more than six million tons of cargo per year.

    Another fact demonstrates that the BTK is not being used to its full capacity: while the cost of rail transport is relatively low and competitive, about three-quarters of the land transport between Turkey and Azerbaijan is still carried out by road transport.

    Speaking about the potential of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, one should not lose sight of the fact that the war in Ukraine that has been going on for about a year and a half now and the anti-Russian sanctions imposed in this regard have qualitatively reformatted Eurasia’s transit and logistics picture.

    As the competitiveness of Russia's Northern Corridor has weakened, the number of requests from freight forwarders and logistics companies in Europe, Central Asia (CA), China and Türkiye to use the capacity of the BTK has significantly increased. However, the rapidly growing demand for freight transit via the BTK must be commensurate with its capacity, infrastructure development and convenience of cross-border transit arrangements.

    Alas, the BTK did not meet all the requirements in this respect, and this highway needed to be improved and modernised. The first step in this direction was taken in August last year: Azerbaijan, Türkiye and Georgia signed an agreement on the establishment of a sustainable electronic exchange of primary data on the cargoes handled on the BTK in order to simplify the transit and customs procedures on the cross-border railway.

    Mechanisms for simplified customs procedures are being introduced, customs risk analysis is being exchanged through prior information exchange, thus making risk analysis available to all three countries, eliminating the need for duplication of control measures, and significantly reducing the loss of time when goods cross borders.       

    Another issue of no less importance is to increase the volume of freight traffic on the BTKrail line, including by increasing the capacity on the "narrow" sections of this highway. Delivery of cargo on the BTK from Baku to Kars exceeds 70 hours, so efforts should be focused on increasing the speed of trains.

    In turn, Georgia should complete the infrastructure construction on the section Marabda - Turkish border, in the near future to launch logistic terminals in Georgian Akhalkalaki and Turkish Kars and through these transport hubs to increase the processing capacity of cargo transported via the BTK rail line.

    According to information released the day before by CJSC Azerbaijan Railways, with the purpose to accelerate the work carried out since the beginning of this year, Azerbaijani Railways attracted new contractors to accelerate the repair, restoration and construction work on the BTK railway and complete in the shortest possible time the modernisation of track infrastructure on the 183-kilometre section in Georgia.

    "The repair and restoration work on the Marabda-Kartsakhi section, which runs through mountainous and forested terrain with difficult terrain, was started as part of measures to improve road maintenance, increase line capacity and improve traffic safety," Azerbaijani Railways said in a statement.

    At present, the BTK line is fully electrified, construction of the line is largely complete, and final work is underway at 12 stations to supply power, install communications and signalling equipment and other modern auxiliary communications; administrative buildings for station employees are also being constructed. In order to complete the above-mentioned works as soon as possible, cargo transportation on the Georgian section of the BTK route has been temporarily restricted since mid-May.

    The increase of Azerbaijan’s transit opportunities envisages the expansion of Alyat port transport infrastructure (from 15 to 25 million tons of cargo per year), and the modernization of the BTK highway and these projects are under the close attention of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

    "Currently Azerbaijan is investing in the expansion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, which is the Georgian section of the main line: additional investments of Azerbaijan in this project will exceed $120 million, and the volume of cargo flow on BTK will be expanded from 1 million to 5 million tons. I hope we will complete this work in 2024," the head of state said recently.

    In neighbouring Türkiye, they also pay considerable attention to this important regional railway project.

    "The high-speed railroad to be built in Türkiye will connect with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. We intend to build a connecting line from Erköy station to Kayseri, and extend this branch line to Erzincan, Erzurum and Kars," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently.

    According to the Turkish leader, this line called the "Iron Silk Road", will open a strategic corridor of global significance in the region.  

    Such prospects open up fundamentally new opportunities for the BTK: the connection with Türkiye’s high-speed railways will allow for passenger transportation via Baku-Tbilisi-Kars.

    It is worth recalling that the launch of the first passenger train on the BTK route was planned back in 2019. However, the coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent recession, inflation, energy and other crises forced the project participants to postpone these undertakings for a longer period.

    According to experts, at the initial stage, up to 1 million passengers a year can be transported on the BTK, and in the future, if there is demand, the number of travellers may increase to 3 million people.


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