Looked to as a means of strengthening Georgia’s potential as a transit corridor and of providing Azerbaijan a reliable channel for freight shipment, the ongoing project is nearing completion. On January 1, 2017, testing will begin on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad. This was announced by Rahmi Dogan, governor of Turkey’s Kars province.
Along the Silk Road in Swiss comfort
Azerbaijan and Georgia already intend to ensure that the volume of transit be expanded. The possibility of attracting additional freight, including from China and India, was discussed during Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s recent visit to Baku. Now the involved parties are debating the question of developing a united tariff system in the logistic corridor.
In turn, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted at the Istanbul Finance Congress that this will be the most important segment of rail service between Beijing and London.
Meanwhile, at the InnoTrans 2016 exhibition in Berlin, the Swiss company Stadler Rail Group presented a sleeper passenger car for the BTK. As stated by the company’s representative, Paul Gess, the car is intended for transport on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars-Istanbul international railway, with a regular operating speed of 160 km/hr. Moreover, each car is equipped with an emergency power system that will ensure the functioning of life-support systems for up to 24 hours in the case that power from the locomotive is disconnected.
According to Stadler’s contract with Azerbaijan Railways CJSC, a total of thirty cars of five different types have been built for use on the BTK:
3 – first-class sleeper cars for 16 passengers (two-person cabins)
3 – first-class sleeper cars for 20 passengers (two-person cabins)
3 – second-class sleeper cars for 20 passengers (two-person cabins)
3 – second-class sleeper cars for 18 passengers (including one cabin for disabled individuals)
18 – second-class sleeper cars for 32 passengers (four-person cabins)
1 – dining car with 28 seats
A train to Nakhichevan
In Azerbaijan, people do not see only the economic dimension of the project. Yes, of course, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad will help to deepen and strengthen relations between Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia. But, in addition to this, the project has great geopolitical significance for Baku.
According to expert opinion, it would be incorrect to treat the BTK as a project of only three countries. It is a factor that will enable future influence on the development of economic connections with the governments of Europe and Central Asia. And it will enable the deepening of relations with countries located along the Silk Road.
Moreover, in its first stage, the BTK will exert great influence in drawing together Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey from a logistical point of view. And this means a free flow of labor-power between the three countries, the development of tourism, industry, agriculture and the processing sphere.
Taking account Georgia’s and Turkey’s potential tourism capabilities, this will also enable the development of this sphere in Azerbaijan and will ensure the flow of tourists into the country.
At the same time, Azerbaijani experts point to yet one more profit for the country – yet another project is being developed in parallel, which will allow Baku and Nakhichevan to be connected by railroad. For this, it is essential that construction be completed on the branch from Kars to Nakhichevan.
The project began to be implemented way back in 2007. It foresaw the construction of a rail line from the Georgian city Akhalkalaki to the rail station in the Turkish city Kars, a distance of 105 kilometers, of which 76 are on Turkish territory and 29 on Georgian. The Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi segment was also rehabilitated.
The initial cost was 422 million dollars, of which 202 million were to be allocated for construction of the Georgian segment, and 220 million for the Turkish, although the cost was later adjusted upwards. And at the present moment, according to various estimates, it exceeds 600 million USD (some sources indicate much larger sums – more than twice a half-billion dollars). Azerbaijan took on an equal share of the expenditures by offering credit to Georgia and Turkey.
Azerbaijan provided Georgia credit with a minimal interest rate for construction of the segment from Akhalkalaki to the Turkish border, and undertook rehabilitation of the Marneuli-Akhalkalaki segment at its own cost.
The total length of the BTK is 826 kilometers. It has an estimated transport capacity of one million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight. In the future the BTK’s transport capacity might be increased to three million passengers and twenty million tons of freight.
Once the railroad is put into exploitation, it is expected that mutual trade between Azerbaijan, Georgian and Turkey will increase to ten billion dollars per year.
In addition to economic goals, there is an obvious political basis for the project. It is not beneficial for Iran and will definitively establish Armenia’s isolation in terms of regional transport, but it is beneficial for Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, who are setting up a transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe.
The BTK also is also part of a much larger project for connecting the railroads of the South Caucasus with Europe through Turkey.
The Marmaray rail tunnel under the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul was constructed as part of the program for development of Turkey’s railroads; this tunnel provides a direct connection with the European railway network.
Down the line, with the completion of high-speed transit projects, the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars project will presumably become part of the Europe-Caucasus-Asia high-speed railway corridor.