For many kilometers, I walked alongside a rail construction project that will influence the way goods and people move around Central Asia.
It was September 2017, and crews were finishing up the last details, getting the BTK Railway ready for the October opening. The 840-kilometer passenger and cargo rail line, financially funded by Azerbaijan and Turkey and supported by Georgia, connects the Caspian Sea city of Baku, with Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and Turkey’s inland eastern city of Kars. The geopolitical position of this train line closes an overland cargo gap in transcontinental logistics, reduces delivery time and creates new transportation options and possible new markets for many industries, including the high-tech sector. It complements other efforts to modernize old Silk Road routes connecting Asia and Europe. Further, it adds a piece to what could be a middle corridor to the Eurasia span.
The inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway in Baku, Azerbaijan
Engineers laying and testing cables informally told us future development could include links to Istanbul, which would connect to Europe’s trade network and make it an appealing alternative way for people to travel by land. While the struck a backpacking chord, my mind wandered to the business impact the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line would have not only in the region, but on broader global supply chain and logistics operations. Overland transportation is difficult in the mountainous South Caucasus region, and other now-operating rail lines connect China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Europe via northern corridors. I couldn’t help but think about what a multi-modal train-boat-truck southern route would look like, and how it could link oil and gas-rich countries, such as Azerbaijan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with ports along the Aegean, Black, Caspian and Mediterranean seas and significant existing and potentially massive emerging commercial markets across two continents.
"The South Caucasus region that the BTK Railway goes through sits right in the heart of the emerging Eurasian supercontinent — a massive market that makes up 65% of the population, 75% of energy resources, and 40% of the GDP in the world,” as a Forbes article stated.
Look at a map and you’ll see the vital link the BTK line could play on a global scale. China sits in the far east, India in the not distant southeast, and Russia and developing former Soviet countries border the north. The western and southern landscapes open the way for Europe, the Middle East, and, of course, the rest of Turkey (already a big player in regional land and sea shipping and logistics, based anecdotally on the sheer number of long-distance trucks we saw everywhere we passed during our walking journey in Central and West Asia…more things I notice and think about en route). It’s not a stretch either to see how products from this train could be transferred and find their way into Northern Africa, or even sub-Sahara Africa.
What this missing link in land transportation mean for the high-tech industry? Essentially, it means another alternative way of moving goods across markets and potentially cutting a few days out of shipping schedules.
Currently, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail line has capacity for one million passengers and five million tons of cargo annually, according to another Forbes article.Cargo capacity is expected to grow to 15 million tons per year when a second, parallel line is built, something slated to happen in the near future, according to Forbes.