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Trans-Caspian International Transport Route platform launched in Astana

Kazakh officials emphasize the need for speed as the needed studies to locate bottlenecks are complete
Embassy of Kazakhstan in Brussels via X
Trans-Caspian Transport Corridor routing as shown in June 12 meeting

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In a major step forward for regional transport coordination, Kazakhstan’s capital Astana hosted the launch June 12 of a new coordination platform for the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR).

The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also referred to as the Middle Corridor, is a multilateral institutional development project linking the containerized rail freight transport networks of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the European Union through the economies of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and when possible, Eastern Europe. The TITR is of key strategic importance as it provides a shorter, and at least for 2024, a totally sanctions free intermodal alternative to Russia’s older Trans-Siberian route which remains the largest trans-Eurasia rail network in operation.

The longest stretches of the TITR cross the territory of Kazakhstan, covering the entire distance between China and the Caspian Sea, making Kazakhstan the unquestionable core element in all regional policy decisions. Transit times from China to Turkey have been steadily decreasing as work on the TITR has progressed, at times falling to less than 25 days, compared to a China to Europe maritime transit time of 35-45 days if/when the Suez Canal is fully accessible, not something that can be taken for granted these days. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of transport has stated the new coordination platform’s ultimate objective is to get transit time to 15 days or less.

The EU considers the TITR a flagship project for its Global Gateway initiative, an EU program aimed at strengthening connectivity between Europe and the rest of the world, a program reminiscent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Coordination platform will be essential

The new coordination platform is designed to bring together all the donors, investors, stakeholders, and beneficiaries involved in the TITR project, many of whom have worked together on earlier coordination mechanisms and fora. Among them are the five key Central Asian/Caucasus states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, as well as the European Commission, European Union (EU) member states, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank.

The new platform’s primary tasks include mapping ongoing and planned initiatives, identifying soft infrastructure projects, monitoring the progress in the implementation of projects and coordinating technical assistance, all with the hope of making the TITR more efficient. This is no easy task, recalling that massive funding numbers were thrown about during the Global Gateway Investors Forum for the European Union – Central Asia Transport Connectivity last January 29-30 in Brussels, when 10 billion euros in TITR project funding from EU and collaborating international financial institutions was outlined and in some cases announced. At that time, the EU had already identified 33 areas for investment and upgrades in the physical infrastructure of various segments of the TITR, ranging from the modernization of various railways to increasing the capacity of ports on the Caspian Sea and upgrading the ferry fleets.

Strong support for the platform by Kazakhstan and EU officials

Growth trends for rail traffic are spectacular. For the year 2023, rail traffic along the TITR surged to 2.75 million tons, an increase of 65 percent compared to 2022. Rail traffic on the TITR reportedly increased by 35 percent in the January-April period of 2024.

Launching the June 12 meeting, Kazakh Minister of Transport Marat Karabayev declared that Kazakhstan, located at the crossroads of important trade routes, has long been aware of the importance of an efficient and sustainable transport system.

“The creation of a coordination platform is an important step in this direction, providing us with a unique opportunity to join forces, and share experiences and opinions to achieve common goals of the regions,” the minister noted.

Despite the massive growth in rail traffic already seen, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko emphasized that time was short. “You cannot beat geography, but you can make geography work for you. This is what we are embarking on in trying to recreate the great Silk Road of the past in modern circumstances,” explained Vassilenko.

“All studies [on TITR] point to the same things: investments are needed, and investments are needed now to remove the bottlenecks along the Trans-Caspian transport corridor. Enough studies and let us indeed get to work. This coordination platform is a great platform,” he declared.

As one of the country’s top foreign policy officials, Vassilenko also underlined the fact that the development of TITR has long-term implications for sustainable development and peace in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

Henrik Hololei, Extraordinary Senior Adviser at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Partnerships, explained the EU’s vision for the TITR project. “This is undoubtedly the renaissance of the Silk Road, as the EU sees the Trans-Caspian transport corridor as a highly relevant route in the current geopolitical context. As in ancient times, it will also have the potential to be a corridor of ideas, knowledge, and innovation, in addition to connectivity and trade. It brings people and businesses along and around the corridor,” he noted.

In terms of a work program for the new platform, Hololei explained that the platform was also meant to support investors and stakeholders in mobilizing the investments necessary for completing projects along the route. “The aim of the platform is to provide a permanent framework that will drive forward the implementation of projects in Central Asia in a consistent and coordinated way to achieve the long-term objective of making the Trans-Caspian corridor a more sustainable, safer and faster route linking Europe and Central Asia in less than 15 days,” he said.

Hololei underlined the need for involving the private sector in the new platform’s work, noting the new platform plans to develop a private sector engagement plan by the end of this year. “I can assure you that we are very aware that the success of the platform, as well as the overall success of the corridor, will depend on the solid engagement of private businesses. This is essentially an economic corridor and the significant economic driver for the whole of Central Asia and all countries along the corridor,” he concluded.

Also at the meeting, Maja Bakran, Deputy Director General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission, noted: “The Coordination Platform will be instrumental in making the Trans-Caspian Transport Corridor a multimodal, modern, competitive, sustainable, predictable, smart and fast route linking Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The coordination efforts among the various stakeholders will drive forward deeper connections and contribute to sustainable economic development of the region.”

 

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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