Ashgabat, 7 June 2013 (nCa) — Rarely comes the moment when you comprehend fully well that you are a witness to history in the making.
One such moment took place on 5 June 2013 when the presidents of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan jointly gave start to the construction of first phase of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway line (TAT Rail).
The place was Atamurat, a town some 200 km southeast of Turkmenabat, the administrative centre of Lebap province of Turkmenistan.
The sun was shining vigorously and the timeless sand dunes were happily reflecting back the heat they received from the sun. The mercury was hovering around 40 C. Amudarya River, the largest and most important river of Central Asia, was flowing briskly just a few kilometers away.
The site where the start ceremony was to take place was bustling with activity. Railway officials in their smart uniforms were everywhere, giving the final touches to the start of construction work on 85-km Atamurat-Imamnazar segment of TAT Rail. This will connect the Atamurat junction with the border of Afghanistan. From there, Turkmenistan will later build another 35 km of line into the Afghan territory, joining the towns of Akina and Andkhoi.
A railway track laying crane was standing ready to put the first rails in place.
Earlier in the morning President Imomali Rahmon of Tajikistan arrived at Turkmenabat airport in his Somon Air jetliner and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan landed less than an hour later in his Kam Air plane. They were received by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov.
The presidents had some talks, first one-to-one and then in trilateral format before boarding the helicopter for Atamurat.
On landing at Atamurat, they addressed a gathering of the local officials and guests, expressing the confidence that the TAT Rail will bring in a new era of stability, peace and prosperity to not only the participating countries but to the entire region because it will open up wider prospects of connectivity with several countries.
After the speeches everyone moved out of the temporarily built hall to the site where the construction work was to start.
The three presidents signed a message to the future generations. President Berdymuhamedov capped the capsule and it was placed at the foundation, where they also jointly unveiled a plaque marking the historic event in the Turkmen, Afghan and Tajik languages.
Then they stepped back and the crane lowered a ready section of rails to the ground amid cheers by the crowd and handshakes between the presidents.
Some general information
The breadth of the railway lines in Turkmenistan is the same as in other CIS countries i.e. 1520 cm. This is the smallest of the six versions in the ‘Broad Gauge’ category.
Each section of the rail is 25 meters long and it weighs 1625 kg (65 kg per meter). It means that the weight of a pair of rails for 25 meters of length will be 3.25 tons (1625 kg x 2).
With the concrete sleepers, the total weight of a 25 meter segment is 18 tons.
Turkmenistan has six units of railway track laying cranes. Each crane can lay one kilometer of track in two days. In other words, the track building capacity of Turkmenistan is three kilometers per day. This is in addition to the work that is required to prepare the ground for laying the tracks.
Turkmenistan imports rail lines, fish plates and other related metallic parts from Russia but has its own factory for manufacturing the concrete sleepers.
The schedule for construction was not announced for the Atamurat-Imamnazar section but it appears that it will take somewhat more than a year, possibly a year and a half because two bridges need to be built along the way.
Backbone of progress
Regardless of time and place, people are the backbone of any economic progress. This is true for Turkmenistan also.
The sun-burnt faces of the top railway officials at the ceremony were an eloquent proof that they spend more time in the field instead of staying in their air-conditioned offices.
From the rank and file workers in their yellow reflector vests to the top brass in their golden epaulettes everyone was equally tanned.
Also, conversation with several top railway officials showed the essential facts were on their fingertips and they exuded the confidence that comes only with long years of nose to the grindstone.
This is good news because with the mass integration with the regional railway systems, the Turkmen railwaymen would need to shoulder greater responsibilities and they seem ready for the challenge.
Investing in future
TAT Rail is one of the several projects where Turkmenistan is spending heavily for the sake of common benefit of the region.
Turkmenistan will build from its own sources the entire 120-km Atamurat-Imamnazar-Akina-Andkhoi section of TAT Rail.
Although the cost of this stretch has not been announced as yet, according to the prevailing costs of railway construction elsewhere in the world, it is estimated that the 120-km railway line, complete with signaling, communication and electrical systems, will carry a price tag of at least US $ 500 million, quite possibly more, because two bridges need to be built on the stretch, one more than 300 meters long and the other about 260 meters long.
Turkmenistan is certainly rich but any project that costs more than half a billion dollars is rather a heavy lift for even the most prosperous of countries.
Connecting with the world
The Atamurat-Imamnazar segment is going to be the seventh railway connection of Turkmenistan with a neighbouring country. When the north-south railway line reaches the Iranian border, it will be the eighth railway crossing point of Turkmenistan with its neighbours. [Two with Iran, one with Kazakhstan, two with Afghanistan and three with Uzbekistan]
This proliferation of connections means that Turkmenistan is spending considerable funds to make sure that there are no bottlenecks in the railway transit trade in the region. When there are no delays in transportation of cargo, it helps reduce the costs to the consumers, very directly benefiting the people at grassroots level.
In less than two years when the North-South and TAT Rail will come into service, the global cargo movement picture will change dramatically, altering the trade currents permanently. At their peak, these two railway lines will enable to-and-fro movement of some 25 million tons of cargo annually across the Eurasian land mass from China to the heart of Europe and from Afghanistan to Russia and beyond.
By extension, South Asia will be able to cut eight days of transportation time and container costs by up to $ 500 if Pakistan and India streamline their systems to benefit from the massive and continuously growing railway network of Central Asia.
Meeting logistical challenges
Organizing an event of the scale of the ceremony that took place on 5 June is no laughing matter. Atamurat is a small town and the place where the ceremony was held is about half an hour’s drive from the town proper.
To put build several temporary but impressive decorated halls for speeches and lunch, yurts for the hundreds of workers gathered there, arranging excellent food in large quantities, rigging up a sound system that functions flawlessly, creating a CCTV system and linking it with the direct transmission van, putting together an impressive cultural show featuring more than a hundred artists, transporting everything from as far away as Ashgabat, coordinating the availability of airplanes, buses and other forms of transport to bring the guests to the site and back, seating arrangements so that everyone is escorted to their proper place, doing everything under a tight schedule where every minute counts, all of this and much more, this requires grinding hard work for everyone involved and meticulous coordination among dozens of ministries, organizations and departments.
Above all, it requires tons of experience in arranging these kinds of events. And, Turkmenistan has the right to congratulate itself on this vast pool of experience gathered over the years.
A leader by default
Without claiming to be so, Turkmenistan has lately emerged as a leader in several key areas.
President Rahmon of Tajikistan said during his speech at the ceremony, only half jokingly, that I wish President Berdymuhamedov would come up with more initiatives that would benefit Tajikistan.
President Karzai of Afghanistan devoted nearly the whole of his speech praising the policies and initiatives of the president of Turkmenistan that are either benefiting already or would benefit on their completion the people of Afghanistan. He made special reference to the TAPI gas pipeline project that would transfer Turkmen gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
There is the growing recognition at the regional and global level that Turkmenistan is now unquestionably a leader in energy security, environmental protection, trade and transportation connectivity and overall economic integration in concentric circles.
Looking forward together
When the regional projects of this magnitude happen, they induce automatically the spirit of comradeship and shared future. This, in turn, leads to strengthening of stability and peace.
Here it is important to underline that peace is not merely the absence of war and stability is not just the absence of chaos. There is a vacant zone between war and peace, and there is an empty patch between stability and chaos.
As soon as we stop pursuing and maintaining peace actively, we slide involuntarily into the vacant zone where war is lurking nearby. The moment we cease to care about stability, the empty patch separating us from chaos shrinks threateningly.
The answer here is in economic integration through projects such as TAT Rail. Peace and stability on iron wheels.
Friendship trickles down
An Arabic saying is that the people are on the path of their leaders. When the leaders work dynamically to create mechanisms for economic betterment, the people participate wholeheartedly because they are the ultimate beneficiaries.
This was visible in the cultural show during the TAT Rail launching ceremony where the Turkmen, Afghan and Tajik singers sang together a song of friendship in the three languages.
Such songs and dances are more than showmanship. They stimulate people-to-people contacts, which is the essence of economic integration without taking away anything from the sovereignty of each country.
Sharing with media
Turkmenistan is making great strides in the development of energy, transport and communications infrastructure of inter-regional and intra-regional significance. It would be useful if the Turkmen authorities could arrange some special briefings or any other kind of encounters to bring together from time to time the journalists and the leading experts in various areas.
This would help the people outside Central Asia to understand and appreciate the region in the proper context.