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Kazakhstan accelerating efforts to expand the strategic Middle Corridor

While traffic is surging, the Middle Corridor will not supplant the Trans-Siberian route across Eurasia in the medium term

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The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, which is frequently 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 and the European Union through the economies of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and when possible, Eastern Europe.  It provides a shorter, and today sanctions-free, alternative to Russia’s Trans-Siberian route.

According to earlier research conducted by the Asian Development Bank, the development of the Middle Corridor is institutionally independent and potentially transformative for the economies of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey.

Due to the war in Ukraine, it is not clear when, if ever, rail traffic volumes through the northern branch route, via Ukraine and Poland, will resume. Recent Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, or TITR, discussions and planning efforts now focus heavily on Istanbul as the European terminus point for the corridor which then connects to the EU via the Southeast European rail grid.

The TITR begins on the Chinese Pacific coast; the normally allotted time for Europe-bound rail traffic to reach China’s western border with Kazakhstan is currently set at 3 days.

Kazakhstan is the vital transit junction for Eurasia

A quick look at the map reveals the strategic significance of the TITR, which many consider the present-day equivalent of the ancient Silk Road from China to the West.  Kazakh officials consider that 80 percent of all land traffic from China to Europe currently passes through Kazakhstan, although at present not all of this traffic uses routes that would fit the “Middle Corridor” profile. That effectively leaves Russia with the remainder of traffic volume, which may continue to decline, as it did in 2022, as the TITR’s capacity is steadily upgraded.

The Middle Corridor through Eurasia

In 2022, the TITR route saw cargo transit volume increase two and a half times to a total of 1.5 million tons. It is unclear how much of this growth was a direct response to international sanctions on Russia, but that was clearly a factor.  While this increase is certainly a significant jump, overall traffic volume remains below the amount carried via the northern Trans-Siberian route, although much of that route’s cargo volume would be categorized as internal Russian Federation transport.

At a briefing organized for foreign media on the country’s development strategy in late October, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko provided several important updates regarding progress on the TITR effort.  He explained that at several regional coordination meetings throughout 2023, including in Beijing, important decisions have been announced.  Kazakhstan revealed its plans to open a new rail border crossing, its third, with China, and has also announced plans for 1300 km of new railroads in the coming years. Work on laying 800 km of double track on the main rail line to the Chinese border has been started.

Astana is not just looking at the TITR as a panacea but also seeks to improve the country’s underserved north-south rail infrastructure to facilitate expanding cargo movements on the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway.

When asked if the TITR was seen as a core element of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Vassilenko explained that Astana views the TITR as complementary to the Belt and Road concept, not direct competition. There are however earlier agreements to which Beijing is a signatory that refers to its support for the “Middle Corridor.” Time will tell.  Kazakhstan is also seeking to expand its efforts with its European partners to further develop TITR in concert with the EU’s Global Gateway Initiative as well as G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.

Where are the bottlenecks?

Responding to a question from NE Global about remaining bottlenecks on the TITR route, Vassilenko explained the EBRD had just completed an extensive study of transport and administrative bottlenecks.  He said the report identified 22 “hard” and 7 “soft” infrastructure bottlenecks on the route across the region, in addition to the need for standardized regional procedures and customs documentation to be developed. He gave a few examples of the kinds of problems identified. Top on the list, work was needed to further upgrade the capacity of container hubs on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast at Aktau and Port Kurik, including the new Sarzha multifunctional marine terminal.

Work was needed as well to construct new rail lines that bypassed major cities like Almaty and also Tashkent if transit time is to be further reduced.  There was a shortage of locomotives needed to move freight across the Caucasus countries, creating delays there.  He added that the Caspian Sea crossing to Azerbaijan often took 36 hours or longer, which could be optimized eventually; some foreign investors were already considering buying additional Roll-on Roll-off ferry vessels.  Work on facilitating electronic transfer of documents for the Caspian Sea crossing is said to be complete, according to industry sources.

There have been several rounds of meetings between the Transport and Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia, with a focus on developing predictable regional procedures, Vassilenko noted.  Three of these countries’ railway systems have now created a joint venture to coordinate their work – Middle Corridor Multimodal, Ltd.

Finally, the regional coordination process plus ongoing infrastructure work has yielded significant progress in reducing transit times, Vassilenko concluded.  In 2021 the transit time from China’s Pacific coast to Supsa, Georgia (a port near the Turkish border) was 38 -53 days; by the end of 2022, it required 18-23 days according to Vassilenko. The transit time for Kazakhstan’s territory is now down to five days he said.

Earlier this year, Vassilenko stated Astana’s next goal was to reduce the China to Istanbul transit time to 14-18 days by the end of 2023, which may soon be within reach.

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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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