Swim or Sink: Another attempt at Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul railway freight service

With shipping operations being pushed to the edge, over the past year due to the Suez Canal disruption, the frequent lockdowns and restrictions on ports due to the coming and going threat of COVID, and the rising freight rates, an alternative to manage the freight was vital. What appeared to be the most appealing to make a quick switch in such a situation was trusting the existing infrastructure and opting to depend on rail freight.

Three nations namely Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have already moved in this direction.

In December last year, Freight rail service resumed operations between Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad over a 4,000-mile route- a service which was first launched in 2009.

The train commenced its journey from Islamabad on December 21 and arrived in Iran on its way to Turkey’s Anatolia, taking 12-14 days to complete the journey, i.e., half the time taken by the sea.

The inaugural train, carrying rice, dates, and pink salt, has a capacity of 80,000 tonnes.

The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) train will proceed 1,235 miles inside Pakistan before crossing through the Taftan border crossing in the province of Balochistan to cover a 1,620-mile section in Iran. Before reaching its final destination, the train will travel 1,150 miles in Turkey, passing through the capital, Ankara.

The Marmaray Tunnel in Istanbul will allow the freight trains to cross under the Bosporus Strait from Asia into Europe and vice-versa. India has also expressed interest in connecting its freight rail network to the railway.

Sneak peek into the past

Originally launched in 2009, ITI trains were made operational within the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).

ECO – an Asian political and economic intergovernmental organization founded in 1985 by the leaders of Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. Currently houses 10 countries as its members: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The freight service covering 6,500 kilometers or 4,040 miles in 15 days ran on a trial basis in 2009-2011 with no consistent service leading to several abortive attempts to resume operations.  

Resumption after 10 years

The ITI train which resumed operations after 10 years is believed to be one of the most effective vehicles that can help in expanding exports, imports, and trade between ECO member countries.  

The resumption of the ECO freight train is perceived as an important step towards bettering the regional communication between the three countries and facilitating trade and public transportation for the long-term economic benefit of the region.

ITI freight train services are to play a vital role in improving the economies & lives of citizens of ECO member states by maximizing ECO efficiency & reducing the cost of doing business, yielding benefits for each of the three countries.

The high-yielding and ambitious train service see a little bump in operations as the U.S. sanctions against Iran make shipping cargo through the country an administrative headache. However, the success of the operations will largely depend on how Pakistan’s rail infrastructure is developed. If the network is completed and linked with China and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, it would be a viable alternative.

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