Speeding up Middle Corridor: construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway to start in autumn 2022
The long-awaited infrastructure project, which can revolutionise logistics in Central Asia, is getting more and more realistic. At least that’s what the Government of Kyrgyzstan says. It has even scheduled a new term for launching the construction works. It is autumn 2022 when Kyrgyzstan is planning to commence the project that will speed up rail freight traffic on the Middle Corridor.
The project of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway has again become one of the key concerns of the Government of Kyrgyzstan. Last week, on 20 May, it adopted a new strategy for the development of rail transport in the country. The document, which is designed for the 2022-2026 period, will not only create conditions for the long-term development and improvement of rail transport and infrastructure, but will also ensure the enhancement of passenger and freight transportation by rail. To this end, the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will be the key project in the Central Asian state in the coming years.
“The development of the railway industry is one of the priority areas for the work of the Cabinet of Ministers. In autumn, it is planned to launch the largest project in the history of our independence – the construction of a railway along the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan route. It is necessary to support this project,” said Akylbek Japarov, the Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan.
The planned China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway was being discussed by the Kyrgyz and Chinese officials for more than two decades in a row. For China, the project is important as it will establish a new, faster way to Uzbekistan and therefrom Iran and the Caucasian states. Furthermore, it will be a significant impetus for the economic development of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the westernmost part of China. The same true is about Kyrgyzstan as this Central Asian country with difficult mountainous relief will also receive a great stimulus for enhancing the economic situation in its outermost regions. According to the Kyrgyz Railways, the new railway line will generate at least 10 million tonnes of freight. Currently, the state-owned railway undertaking moves around 7-8 million tonnes of freight annually.
Nevertheless, in spite of such significance, the project faced several key obstacles that slowed down its implementation. They are gauge and route. China was interested in constructing the railway line with the 1,435-millimetre gauge. After the long discussions, it agreed to focus on the broad gauge railway, which is common in Kyrgyzstan in particular and entire Central Asia. There were debates over the route as the Kyrgyz officials were interested in linking all separate railway sections across the country into a real network, while the Chinese party insisted on the construction of the railway line mainly for transit freight traffic.
Currently, the commonly accepted route runs from Xinjiang to the Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad via Torugart and Kazarman. It will have a total length of around 440 kilometres: around 270 kilometres of tracks will be deployed in Kyrgyzstan and around 170 kilometres in China. The planned line will have 95 railway bridges and 48 tunnels, with a total length of around 60 kilometres. As Jalal-Abad has a direct track connection with Uzbekistan, the freight can be easily moved to this country.
Road freight alternative
While the governments of China and Kyrgyzstan were discussing the planned railway, the shippers have succeeded in arranging an alternative way by using the existing roads. In the autumn of 2017, there was performed a pilot shipment from China to Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan. Nine articulated lorries travelled from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Tashkent in Uzbekistan passing through Irkeshtam and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. A few months later, the 920-kilometre-long route became regular for road freight shipments. In June 2020 it was included in a new multimodal (road-rail) connection between China and Central Asia. Trucks delivered freight from the Chinese city of Lanzhou to the Kyrgyz city of Osh, then it was transhipped to a train for moving from Osh to Tashkent.