Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway gaining popularity for transit shipments

2021/06/11 at 12:51 PM

The Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway has been operating for the fourth consecutive year. During this period, the line is becoming more and more popular among shippers and freight forwarders from Turkey and Azerbaijan. What other countries do benefits from the corridor?

Four years ago, there was a very busy season on the sites where the railwaymen were completing the construction of the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway (BTK). The 850-kilometre-long line had been designed to improve rail connectivity between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, delightedly called the project historic and strategic during the launching ceremony to take place later, in late October 2017.

Launching ceremony of the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway in October 2017, source: Azerbaijan Railways (ADY)

“The Baku – Tbilisi –Kars railway has a great importance for the business development, mutual cooperation,” he said at the event. In this regard, there should be noting a positive trend in developing the freight traffic on the line, especially in the last two years. One of the key reason for this is an increasing popularity of the railway for transit shipments. What countries, besides Azerbaijan, do benefit from the route and how?

New Silk Road

By now, there were carried more than 1 million tonnes of freight via the BTK line. Such data has been recently unveiled by the Turkish minister of transport and infrastructure Adil Karaismailoğlu. It is his country that is interested in the railway more than anyone else. With its help, Turkey is moving further towards achieving its strategic goals that are to increase its transit potential on New Silk Road and to attract more freight on the country’s railway network.

As for the interrelation of the New Silk Road, Baku – Tbilisi –Kars railway and Turkey, there could be defined at least dimensions of the issue: the direct west- and eastbound rail freight connections between China and Turkey as well as the further services between China and Europe via Turkey. This story started in late 2019 when the first container train from China ran via Turkey to Czechia. A month later, the eastbound services from Istanbul and Izmit were dispatched towards China.

Container train on the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars line, source: ADY Container

Export-import misbalance

Currently, Turkey and China are sending more and more container trains in both directions. For instance, there have been organised at least four eastbound trains from Turkey to China since the beginning of the year. Nevertheless, the westbound connections still prevail on the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway. This results in some misbalance between export and import running via the route to or from Turkey. Adil Karaismailoğlu noted that 614,000 tonnes of export freight were transported since launching the line while the import amounted only at 393,000 tonnes. The mentioned volumes are generated not only by China and Turkey but also by the Central Asian states. For them, the route has become an important gateway to the world’s key hubs.

Among the latest developments in terms of the eastbound links is a new container train from Turkey to Xi’an that was departed at the first days of June. And what about China? This Asian country is also interested in developing more alternative routes within the News Silk Road. Therefore, the Turkish activity in this area is in line with the Chinese policy ‘One belt, one road’.

Map of the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway, source: Wikimedia Commons

Russian interest

There were many scepticisms from the Russian side regarding the BTK railway during the construction phase. Ironically, this country has become one of the most active users of the line in both directions. In contrast to the New Silk Road service running via the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway, the Russia-originated connections are being carried out with some unique features.

This is about type of wagons and freight loaded onto them. For the southbound traffic towards the Mediterranean ports of Turkey, the Russian companies prefer to use open wagons and to load them with metallurgical products and bulk freight. Meanwhile, the containers run to deliver freight northbound, towards Russia. Before this year, there were only southbound traffic from Russia to Turkey. The first container train, which was loaded with household goods, was dispatched from Turkey to Russia in January 2021. It is not the end and some logistics companies are planning the new connections as the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway still has enough capacity for more freight.

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