The Afghanistan railway project of Clive Lamming for the Paris G8 – 2011 (English version)

Summary presentation of the China-Afghanistan-Europe direct railway in standard gauge. For the H.E. Assad Omer, ambassador of the Afghanistan Islamic Republic in Paris Presented on April 3rd 2014 by Clive Lamming 107, Ave Simon Bolivar 75019 Paris Tél : 01.42.08.96.90 Tél : 06.81.38.97.90

The circumstances of the birth of the idea.

Everything begins with the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et Européennes), which asks to me for two conferences that I should make during the special G8 meeting in Paris of 2011 (July 4th and 5th). This G8 is devoted to the future Afghan railway network. The French Foreign Office wants the well-known French Railway historian and author of many specialized books that I am, having a real knowledge and experience of railways through a lot of my books and university life as a teacher trainer for the national technical schools of the French Ministry of Education.

On June 23rd 2011, a working meeting is organized at the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs with the “Equipe Interministérielle Afghanistan-Pakistan” (Jasmine Zérinini, Yves Banville who will be later at the French Embassy in Kabul, and Nicolas Léopold Ruiz who will later lead this “Equipe Interminisitérielle”. It is stated that the first conference will be an answer to the question asked by the Afghan Government: Are railways still able to bring unification and a power for organisation in a country, as done in France in the 19th century ? The second conference will be about the history of railways in Asia, their organisation, expansion, and links with European railways. I propose to the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs that such a conference cannot end without bringing to Afghanistan a positive hope and, even, a true railway project for this country which is out of the railway systems of Asia. The project must be made regarding to the history of Afghanistan and the needs of its people and nation.

I propose an international railway line China-Afghanistan-Europe, crossing Afghanistan from west to east, from the Wakhan Corridor to Herat, in standard 1435 mm gauge on all its length, bringing to Afghanistan the most richest income by the heavy railway tolls on heavy container direct trains between China and Europe, and bringing to Afghanistan the most direct and efficient tool for export and import business with China, Iran, Irak, Turkey (see: “Let us talk business, now !” at the end of this note)

Afghanistan: the country between different and incompatible railway systems
What would happen if the Afghanistan railway is composed with several different gauges: only the normal gauge, in 1435 mm track, will create the necessary link with China, Iran, Turkey, and Europe.
At the junction of the Chinese Railways (1435 mm gauge) and the Mongolia Railways (1524 mm russian gauge) there must be a four rail track allowing to change the wheels of a whole train, this meaning 100 to 400 axles to replace under the wagons !

My direct contacts during the G8 

My direct contacts during the G8 of Paris in 2011 agreeing and supporting my project :

  • Wahidullah Shahrani (Minister of Mines of Afghanistan)
  • Atiq Sediqi (Sustainable Development of Natural Resources Project Afghanistan)
  • Michel Audigé (World Bank, Sector Manager Transport sector unit, Sustainable Development Dep.South-East Asia) Washington)
  • Valéry Alvès (Service économique de l’Ambassade de France à Kaboul)
  • Chen Ruhua (China Embassy in France)
  • Rajeev Mistra (Deputy Railway Advisor, Embassy of India in France)
  • Sebastian Thiam (International Security Assistance Force Headquarters, Kabul, Afghanistan)
  • Thierry Mariani (French Minister of Transports)
  • Philippe Meunier (Deputy Director General for Global Affairs, Development and Partnerships, Ministery of Foreign and European Affairs, France)
  • Xavier Durand (SYSTRA, France) Charles Langlet (Alstom, France) Please have a look on this internet site concerning the G8 and the Afghan delegation: http://www.ambafrance-af.org/G8-France-2011-Seminaire-pour-la

I must add that I met Mohammad Yamma Shams, Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the Afghanistan Railway Authority (ARA), this during a congress concerning the Asia-Europe railway links held at Istanbul in October 2016. He asked me to apply for working for the ARA at the ADB bank, what I did but the perspective of moving to Kabul for several years at the age of nearly 80 years was difficult to me: I was eady to help and advice during some short missions.

After the G8

I express my will to keep the project alive and to have action for it. The French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs then suggests that I take part in the action and works of the Club France-Afghanistan that Françoise Hostalier, former minister and deputy, is setting in the French Parliament House “Assemblée Nationale”. I become a very devoted member and follower of this club, learning a lot about Afghanistan from ambassadors, economists, specialists, advisors, parliament members, being involved or having been involved with Afghanistan, or being themselves true Afghan people. I learn a lot about political, economic, geographic, social situations in that country which suddenly appears as interesting and appealing to me. But my railway project is on a stand-by position, due to the situation in 2011-2012 in Afghanistan. I just bringing the project without undertaking it, feeling alone. But, on March 12th 2014, Françoise Hostalier gives me the occasion and I describe the project to some 50 or 60 persons, all very interested, one of these, Axelle D’Aligny, being sent by the Embassy of Afghanistan in Paris.

A few days later, the Ambassador of Afghanistan, H.E. Assad Omer invites me and, during a one hour and half conversation offered with the greatest interest and most welcoming care, I expose the China-Afghanistan-Europe railway project. A possible Switzerland in the heart of Asia ? As the maps show, Switzerland, in the 1850’s, is a country in the heart of Europe avoided by the first international railways lines for two reasons : the high mountains, and the poverty due to the absence of agricultural or mineral resources. The Swiss political and economic deciders understand that their country is able to become the cross-road (or the railway turntable) of Europe by offering the shortest distance and the most direct railway lines between northern and southern Europe, and western and eastern Europe too, and the whole nation begins to borrow money and build the lines such as the St-Gothard, the Simplon, the Lötschberg climbing to the high passes and using a lot of viaducts and tunnels. The Swiss railways bring so much money that the country becomes quickly very rich, and, in 1898, the railways are nationalised through a great and enthusiastic “votation”; 

Afghanistan has specific problems

Afghanistan may appear as being in a comparable situation, with the superb mountains and landscapes, the great touristic possibilities, and that one of a cross-road (or a possible railway junction) placed in the heart of a continent, and avoided up to now by the railways. There is a great difference if compared to Switzerland : the richness of the mineral resources ! A lot of “trans Asiatic” railroads have been projected in the past, but most of these were planning to meet India, or the Sout-East of Asia. China, in that time, had not yet reached its economic development of today, and Afghanistan only exists as un Emirate of Kabul with Abdour Rahman who stabilises the borders of the country. British and other failures of diplomacy … At the end of the 19th century, the British are interested in Afghanistan, and, from their empire of India, have the project of a railway penetration by an extension of the excellent railway system established in India in the broad gauge of 1676 mm. They build a line aiming to reach Kabul by the Khyber pass in the 1920s, but this line will never go further than Landi Kotal, a point located at 5 km from the Afghan border in the nowadays Pakistan. The line will be closed by a lack of traffic in 1982, reopened later as a touristic line, and definitively closed in 2006. Other projects exist in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the “Chemin de fer transasiatique” (see the map below) but always avoiding Aghanistan and not aiming to reach China which, at this time, is ignored by the leading industrial countries of the word such as USA, UK (but not by France): Note, on this map, that the problem of the different railway gauges (= distance between the rails) begins to create difficulties with 1676 mm for India in green, 1435 mm for Iran in red, and 1000mm for South-East Asia in grey.

sThe future railway of Afghanistan according to Yamma Shamms the President of the Afghan Railway Authority (ARA)

The French Sofrérail project of 1975-1977.

This project is presented at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel by André de Montessus, manager of the Sofrérail engineering company and Jean Alias, one of the directors of the French national railways SNCF. The project is supported too par Iran and Reza Shah Pahlavi offers two billions of dollars for the building of the two lines, the one starting from Islam Qala and reaching Herat, the other starting from Tarako and joining the first before Kandahar, the line ending at Kabul. The project is excellent as a national Afghan network, but, at an international point of view, Kabul is just at the “end of the line”, being, in fact, the buffer at the end of an extension of the Iranian railway system. If realised, this project would have given to Afghanistan an excellent national railway system, but, very unfortunately, the events of the late 1970s, with the murder of the Prime Minister Daoud on April 27th 1978 and the “putsch” which followed put an end to any railway construction in Afghanistan.

The Franch Systra projet of 1975: meeting the national need of Afghanistan by linking the main towns under the form of an extension of the Iranian railways, this project brings no international link with China and does not install Afghanistan amongst « the concert of the nations »

The situation in the 2010 years

It is only in 2012 that an extension of the Uzbek railroad system, from the Uzbek border to Mazar-i-Charif starts, at last, the railway building era in Afghanistan, but only as an extension of the Russian system in 1524 mm gauge which is a print and a landmark from Soviet Union in all the satellite soviet countries of Central Asia. This line in Russian gauge is the Trojan horse of Russian interests, through Uzbekistan railways, in Afghanistan.

Why a project Chine-Afghanistan-Europe in 2011 ?

I would like to offer a new French project which aims to integrate the French Sofrerail projet in an international point of view, this by adding a direct line from China, making its direct way by the Wakhan corridor and reaching directly Herat through the central valleys of Afghanistan. This line, bringing high tolls and money, should be built first as an east-west main line, electrified, creating, in a first time, the Afghanistan railway system oriented on international traffic and business. Then, with the financial benefits made bay this first main line, the Sofrérail network could be built, as a national afghan system, according to the national needs appearing step by step. The first thing to do is: trade, business, and to have the money for the development of Afghanistan, and, then, to build the railways and roads, airports, water networks, health and scholar equipment required. This line will be a direct, efficient, and quick link between two of the greatest economics markets in the world: China and Europe: their exchanges are 320 billion of euros every year all devoted to sea traffic which is twice slower, more expensive, more environmental killing, and more distant (22000 km by sea, 8000 km by rail)

The direct China-Europe line through Afghanistan and Turkey proposed by Clive Lamming during the G8 of 2011 in Paris
The Lamming project phase 1: the China-Europe line crossing Afghanistan and bringing money for phase 2
The Lamming project phase 2: building the national Afghan railway with the benefits of the phase 1

The Afghan problem: the gauge brakes

Afghanistan railway particular situation : a patchwork of railway gauges. Afghanistan is in a complicated situation, between three different railway gauges, all being totally incompatible to each other. The only technical and commercial choice is to use the standard gauge (1435 mm) of China, one the eastern border, and Iran on the western border, Iran meaning the Iraq, Turkey, Europe. All will be in the same “Standard” UIC gauge of 1435 mm.

This railway line will avoid all the “gauge breaks”, avoid the huge loss of time in changing bogies first at the China-Russia border Mongolia), and again at the Russia-Europe border (Poland). This line will make easy and direct exportation of minerals to China, and other exchanges, including passenger trains to China or Iran. The laying-out of the railway : a high mountain line The line will be laid-out as starting from the Chinese national railways, at Kashgar (Kashi), following then the Karakoram Highway and, at 400 km south, turning in the direction of the east to the Afghan pass of Wakhsir, or, other possibility, entering into a 80 km tunnel at Tashkurgan and reaching Sarhad in the Wakhan valley in Afghanistan, the tunnelling being made under Qala-e-Mafushed at an altitude of 3000 m. Then a long slope of 480 km will lead to Kabul, this line either reaching Kabul (1800 m altitude), and Chagcharan (2200 m altitude), and Herat (1000 m altitude).

An option is that, in a first phase, the line does not cross Kabul (is it immediately necessary for a heavy freight line?), the second phase being the building of the Sofrérail national railway which will put Kabul in the right center of the national Afghan railway system when the needs appear.

The Iranian performance

The Iranian Railway system is approaching Herat in Afghanistan, beginning to create the Afghan railway system by extending his own railway system to China.

aMost of the international traffic will be made in the China-Europe direction, this being mostly on slopes, the trains descending from the Wakhan valley, this being very favourable for economical traction and environment friendly electric traction, here working at a low consumption on east-west direction. Afghanistan railway particular situation : a patchwork of railway gauges. Afghanistan is in a complicated situation, between three different railway gauges, all being totally incompatible to each other. The only technical and commercial choice is to use the standard gauge (1435 mm) of China, one the eastern border, and Iran on the western border, Iran meaning the Iraq, Turkey, Europe. All will be in the same “Standard” UIC gauge of 1435 mm:

The building of the line has begun in Iran at Mesched in 2017-2018 and the line is nearing Herat in Afghanistan. About 20 billions of dollars have been « put on the table » by the ADB bank.

China has, now in 2019, the project of building a line starting from Kashi, following the same direction of my project untill Tashkurgan, but going on to the south to Pakistan. It may be that, if the Iranian Railways build the line from Herat to Kabul, the Chinese Railways complete the job by linking Kabul to Tashkargan through the Wakhan valley, as I wished in the 2011 G8 in Paris.

The project of the Chinese Railways to link Kashi to the Pakistan : in which gauge for crossing Pakistan ? Indian gauge ? I suggest then, in red, a totally normal gauge line for linking Kashi to the Arabian sea but through Afghanistan and Iran.

Let us talk business, now.

kThe amount of the exportations between China and Europe are 276 billions of US dollars every year, this being 193 billion Euros. The amount of exportations between Europe and China, are 8% of the European exportations, this giving an amount of 127 billion Euros. The total of both directions is approximately 320 billion Euros, all undertaken by sea (Shanghai is the first port of the world), this needing an average 33 day travel on a distance of about 22.000 km, the boats having to travel around the continents (India, and even Africa). The shorter 23 day travel around the north coast of Russia will only allow, if put into service, a 4 month possibility in summer every year; The China-Afghanistan-Europe line will go straight through the heart of Asia, during a twice faster and shorter travel: 15 days (or even 12) and 11.000 km, and this line could capture 30% of the sea freight, mainly the freight of higher value and needing a quicker transport. The cost of the line between Kashgar (China) and Herat (Afghanistan) could be about 20 billion Euros, according to the cost of comparable lines, but, for this price, we have the possibility of 11.000 km of lines by only building 1.000 km.

A comparision with the Tibet line.

Comparing with the Tibet line. Officially reported as having cost 3,5 billion dollars, this line has divided by two the cost of transportation between China and Tibet. During the 10 first months of exploitation (year 2000), 591.000 tons of freight have been carried, with 94% for Tibet. The price has been 0.12 Yuan per ton/km, this compared with the price of 0.27 yuan for transportation bay road. The country, according to Lhassa customs financial services, has reduced the transportation cost of 170 million of Yuans a soon as the first year of service, the foreign trade for Tibet being increased of 75 %.

Important technical constraints

An important technical constraint: do not forget. Motorcars, lorries, ships and planes do not use the principle of rail guiding, only the trains do, this explaining safety and low consumption. The wheels of the trains are made for fitting exactly into the space between the two rails (or “gauge”), this being designed with a millimetre accuracy. But, unfortunately, all the railways of the world do not have the same gauge: the rails meet but does not join at some “gauge breaks” : Russia-Poland, Russia-China, Mongolia-China, Spain-France, Pakistan-Iran, Moldavia-Romania, etc…. etc… Complicated gauge-changing systems have been tried, but they do not work with:

1) High speed trains: In Spain, the High-Speed lines have been completely built beside the old system

2) Heavy mineral trains: In Poland, Russia has built a completely new line, in Russian gauge, beside the old polish standard gauge line, this for reaching Katowice and its interesting mining resources.

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