Rail Projects Underway, But A Uniform Network Remains Elusive

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¶1. (U) Summary: While two rail construction projects in Afghanistan
are underway and several more are under discussion, the dream of a
nationwide rail network remains remote. Small-scale projects
sponsored by neighboring countries require different rail gauges,
matching those of the countries these projects border; while the
security situation is delaying two projects and likely deterring
proposals for more. The enforcement of a single rail gauge is not
practical since it would fail to make connections with at least half
of Afghanistan’s neighbors. The Afghan Government must obtain
funding f` and build gauge changing stations if it is serious about
connecting Afghanistan’s major population centers and industrial
areas by train. End Summary.

Herat and Mazar: The Trains Have Left the Station
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¶2. (S) The rail link from Herat to Torbat-E Heydarieh, Iran, funded
by the Iranian Government, is more than half complete. The section
the Iranians are building and funding in Afghanistan is approximately
60 km from their border eastward toward Herat. The Afghan government
under the original bilateral agreement with Iran is obligated to fund
construction of the Afghan railroad’s second half, consisting of an
additional 60 km of track onward to the western suburbs of Herat
city. Iran uses standard gauge (1435 millimeter) track within Iran
and is likely to use track to this specification within Afghanistan.
(Note: standard gauge is the predominate gauge in the United States.)

¶3. (SBU) Afghan Government officials toured the Iranian-funded
portion of the project January 16 and were reportedly told by Iranian
engineers that the rail bed was essentially completed and the rail
laying could be completed in 60 days. They also met Afghan owners of
property along the first half of the portion of the railroad to be
funded by the Afghan government and informed them they would be
compensated for the right of way within 20 to 30 days. The Afghan
Ministry of Finance has allotted 97 million Afghanis (a little less
than $2 million) for this. Herat Governor Nuristani said the
Ministry of Finance has promised approximately $55 million for
constructing the last stage of the railway, including compensating
landowners for right of way for the second half of Afghan portion.
Under the terms of the agreement to build the rail line, Afghanistan
promised to fund construction of half of the project within its
borders and Iran committed to the other half within Afghanistan, as
well as extending its own rail line to the border with Afghanistan.

¶4. (S) Extending from the Afghan/Uzbek border at Hairaton to
Mazar-i-Sharif, an Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded, Uzbek
Railways-constructed track will soon be under construction. The 75
kilometer rail line will cost approximately $170 million. ADB
awarded the contract in October 2009. Uzbek Government-owned Uzbek
Rail agreed to begin construction in December and finish by the end
of 2010. However, security concerns have delayed Uzbek Rail’s
construction preparations, such as barracks for workers (all of whom
will come from Uzbekistan). Uzbek Rail asked ISAF to provide
security forces for the site. ISAF was unable to do so but did agree
to share actionable intelligence with Afghan National Security Forces
(ANSF) and assured the company that ANSF would provide security.
According to a source in Tashkent, Uzbek Rail deemed ANSF protection
insufficient and entered contract talks with an American private
security contractor. The source also indicated Uzbek President Islom
Karimov had ordered the company to start work immediately in early
January.

¶5. (U) The railroad will be 1520 millimeter gauge, the standard
across the former Soviet Union. It will connect with existing Uzbek
tracks at Termez, Uzbekistan. This rail line is important to
coalition forces in Afghanistan, who hope it can speed up the
delivery of crucial supplies through the Northern Distribution
Network, routing shipments through the former Soviet states to
Afghanistan.

Pakistani and Chinese Projects Off the Rails
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¶6. (C) When China Metalurgical Corporation (MCC) won the tender for
Aynak copper mine in 2008, its bid included a promise to build a rail
line “associated with the project.” The line would carry copper
concentrate and eventually smelted copper to more accessible
locations for onward distribution. In January 2010,
World-Bank-funded analysts and a private MCC contractor told us the
company currently considers the railway not feasible. During a
meeting at the mine in September 2009, MCC leadership mentioned what
they viewed as “flexible” the requirement to put in the rail, which
then-Minister of Mines Adel roundly contradicted, saying the rail was
required and “non-negotiable.” A draft of the contract obtained by
the Embassy states that “MCC has made a commitment to the Government
of Afghanistan to construct, at MCC’s sole expense, a railway
associated with the Project…the Parties acknowledge and agree that

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the failure to conclude a railway agreement within this timeframe
shall constitute cause for the Parties to revoke this Mining
Contract.” In a recent Ambassadorial meeting, Minister of Mines
Shahrani said the Aynak contract requires MCC to build “two rail
lines” one north and one east, a statement inconsistent with our
unofficial copy of the contract. The Embassy and World Bank analysts
continue to encourage the Ministry to make the Aynak contract public
for transparency reasons. If this occurs, however, the fact that MCC
has still not completed an addendum to the contract that would
specify when and where rail will be built may provoke controversy.
¶7. (U) Pakistani media reported January 17 that work on a
Quetta-Kandahar rail line would begin soon. The track is complete
from Quetta to the Pakistani border at Weesh Chaman, however, the
remaining seven kilometers of track to the Afghan border post at Spin
Boldak, as well as the remaining 111 kilometers to Kandahar, are “on
hold” by the Afghan Ministry of Public Works due to security
concerns. Assuming Afghanistan and Pakistan do not build a facility
to transfer cargo or change gauges at the border, the rail gauge
would be 1,676 millimeters, known as broad gauge, the standard across
the Asian sub-continent.

Hodgepodge Gauges: Problematic but Not the End of the Line
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¶8. (U) With three different rail gauges potentially entering the
country, freight will need to be offloaded at break of gauge or
facilities must be built to lift cars from the tracks and change
their bogies (the chassis of a railway car.) Changing the bogies on
a 50-car train should take approximately five hours and could
coincide with customs processing. However, it will significantly
delay future passenger and freight trains if the independent lines
ever connect. Dependent on donor funding for its rail development,
Afghanistan is presently not in a position to enforce a single
national rail gauge and must plan to mitigate the economic impact of
multiple gauges. The ADB and other independent studies have
recommended that Afghanistan adopt the Russian 1520 millimeter gauge
within Afghanistan and install gauge change stations at Herat and
Kandahar City. (Note: Dual- or variable-gauge tracks avert the need
for specialized facilities but cost significantly more to build. To
Post’s knowledge, no donor has expressed interest in funding this
additional cost. End note.)
¶9. (U) Rail traffic volumes are also an issue. The general rule of
thumb is that a rail line is not economically viable with less than 5
million tons of throughput. Anything less than this is more
efficiently handled by trucks. The anticipated volumes from and
through Afghanistan to Iran fall far short of this.
¶10. (U) Comment: Many countries, including Australia, Tanzania and
Angola, operate railroads of different gauges. These gauge
differences become significant, however, as the number of gauges
proliferate within country. On the other hand, even the most
far-sighted donor would hesitate to build a link to Afghanistan
requiring cargo to be offloaded at its border or the construction of
an expensive break of gauge facility. It is clearly in the interests
of Afghanistan’s neighbors to seek matching rail gauges within
Afghanistan, and, unfortunately, Afghanistan is not in a position to
adopt a single common rail gauge that would isolate it from at least
half of its neighbors. We are encouraging the Afghan Government to
plan wisely when evaluating future rail projects and consider the
impact of volume and gauge changes on rail efficiency and economy.
End comment.

¶11. Embassy Tashkent has cleared this cable.