Trains have changed history and are set to shape the future, particularly in Asia. The story of the railroad began with the Liverpool-Manchester steam-powered train in September 1830, which was only 50-km long. The train transported cotton from the port of Liverpool to the mills of Manchester. Thus, the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. The transcontinental railway in 1869 revolutionised travel and transportation between the two Atlantic and the Pacific coasts of the US. The Trans-Siberian Railway consolidated government reach from Moscow to Vladivostok, while depleting government funds and paving the way for the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Berlin-Istanbul-Baghdad railroad unleashed all sorts of subversive reactions that hastened the end of the Ottoman Empire. Very many railroads have changed history, including Gandhiji’s train ride in Pietermaritzburg.
Obviously, the big issue is about transportation and connectivity. Given the bulk transportation capacity of the trains, the railroad has been all important in global economic, political, military and social history. I am writing about trains because the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan met in Baku, Capital of Azerbaijan, on October 30 to inaugurate a new railroad connection that seems destined to write a new chapter in history.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad (BTK) is the critical part of a much broader stretch, namely the Middle Transportation Corridor, which runs all the way from Beijing to London via Istanbul. Without the Middle Corridor, the current duration to transport goods between China and Western Europe via land is between 45-62 days. With the Middle Corridor, including the BTK, this will be reduced to 12-15 days. Reduced by at least a month! Even if a mere 10 per cent of the overall existing trade between China and the European Union is shifted to the Middle Corridor, 24 million tonne of additional freight should help every country along its path.
The BTK will carry one million passengers and 6.5 million tonne of cargo annually. This is expected to rise to three million passengers and 17 million tonne of cargo by 2034. In 2008, Turkey had already moved to facilitate customs procedures along the way, and completed the world’s deepest underwater railway connection between Asia and Europe in 2013.The story is also part of a bigger and ubiquitous story of the rise of Asia or Easternisation to borrow Gideon Rachman’s term. The jury is yet to be out on this because the defining technologies, such as robotics and Artificial Intelligence, are still innovated predominantly in the US. But, this is only part of the story.
For global economic health Asia needs to grow. As Asia continues its ascent, the big lesson of the last two decades is that big ideas that would impact the economic breakout of the Eurasian heartland are mostly home-grown. In fact, the Chinese-led Belt and Road project stands almost alone in promising an economic infrastructure revolution to the continent that urgently needs one.
Without proper connectivity economic growth over the long haul would be stifled. But, politics lie at the heart of all connectivity issues. Connectivity and economic integration in much of Asia is still a political hot potato. Indian government took a landmark step towards introducing fast trains in the country. The sad reality is that people and goods cannot travel by train so easily between countries in Asia.
The BTK exists thanks to the political will of the three countries. A diplomatic leap in South Asia, to help connect to the Middle Corridor, could make a giant economic impact across the continent.Ultimately, the BTK railroad and the Middle Corridor, running through the fabulous global metropole of Istanbul where the East meets West, will help both Europe and Asia grow, and grow.
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