Wed Mar 22nd, 2006 at 06:02:00 AM EST
In the 19th century, Central Asia has been subject to a chess-game-like strategic competition of the British and Russian imperialisms, called the Great Game.
For two decades now, a second Great Game is going on, for oil and gas and pipelines.
But, unrecognised by the general public, recently a third Great Game has started: one of landbridge transport projects. In just ten years, transeurasian railways might fundamentally change the structure of transport between the Far East and Europe.
What's different with the previous two Great Games is that this time, it's not Great Powers but some of the affected countries who are the key pushers, and the competition might lead to increased political stability rather than conflict.
From the diaries – whataboutbob
I prepared a map of what exists (black: standard-gauge, blue: broad-gauge) and what is built or projected (purple: standard-gauge, orange: broad-gauge):
Below I deal with individual links and projects, showing how close they are to becoming reality:
- As can be seen to the north, one land-bridge already exists: the Trans-Siberian. Its advantages: the political stability of Russia and few border crossings. Its big disadvantage: the necessity of reloading at borders, due to the different gauge (and axleload and cross section). Also, China and Japan have doubts about security at stations, and large sums should be spent on line upgrades for a reliable service.
Nevertheless, just one year ago, a China–Germany test run has been conducted in 16 days, proving the competitiveness to transport by ship, and Russia is working on making the option a commercial reality.
Less realistic but politically supported is a link-up with both Koreas. Not at all realistic is the hyper-expensive Russian proposal to connect to Japan by building a link across the sea straits between Sakhalin and Hokkaido islands.
- Most parts of a second route are already in place: the Silk Road route. In the last two decades, China built two lines west, linked up one with Kazakhstan, just started a supplementary route parallel to the Mongolian border; while the formerly Soviet 'stans created new short-cuts and linked with Iran. But this route too includes two gauge-changing stops, while crossing a lot of borders of politically unstable countries.
Nevertheless, China is pushing for further connections with each of its western neighbours. The one towards Kyrgyzstan is closest to realisation. The one to Pakistan would be the most expensive, but one Pakistani section (a long tunnel) is in construction.
- The most ambitious project is Kazakhstan's New Silk Road route: avoiding mountains, and the less stable 'stans, 3,940 km of new standard-gauge railway will create a direct link between the Chinese and Iranian standard-gauge networks by 2010, if construction continues as planned (currently the eastern end, parallel to the broad-gauge line, is in construction). Cost is $3.5 billion, oil money can finance it.
- The most important node in the new trans-Eurasian network will be none other than Tehran in Iran. Nuclear technology is not the only field where the theocratic state pushes for industrial modernisation: railway construction also went on apace, most lines in East Iran you see are new or recently upgraded.
Iran is on the Old Silk Road route, and will be part of the New Silk Road route. It will also provide a link with the Indian subcontinent's broad-gauge network in a few months, when the remaining section towards Pakistan will be finished – that is, if the recently re-started train traffic between India and Pakistan can ever grow beyond symbolic. More realistic is the Russia–Persian Gulf link across Azerbaijan, the missing link is in Iran and about to be constructed (partially from Russian money).
- Between Iran and the EU, two gaps still exist – both in Turkey. But one of them, at the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, will be eliminated by 2010: a tunnel is constructed since last year. The other, going around the Van lake, is currently in the planning stage. The link itself won't cost that much, however part of the line leading to it will have to be upgraded. (But the Ankara–Istanbul section is currently converted into a world-class mainline anyway.)
- As for the EU, the remaining problematic part is the crossing of future members Bulgaria and Romania. The EU is already financing the upgrade and complete electrification of the Bulgarian mainline to Turkey, and upgrades in Romania. However, there is only one railway connection between the two, and that's a roundabout route. A second, more western crossing of the Danube (the Vidin–Calafat bridge) would make sense, and more line upgrades connected to it – but construction is slated to start this year, finished by 2009.
So in the best case, a freight train will be able to go from Shanghai straight to London in 2010, and if not then, then almost certainly by 2015. This will create interdependencies of mutual benefit.
What's more, if Russia can organise effective transport along the Transsib by then, there will be two competing routes, preventing any single transit country from stopping transport for blackmail.
It may even happen that the other 'stans will sense their chance and get their act together to create the conditions for a standard-gauge Old Silk Road route.
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