Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Slow Train Coming

It took some 18 hours for it to cover 500 kilometers (310 miles), but the first train in decades to run between Iraq and Turkey ended its maiden voyage today, starting in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and arriving in southern Turkey's Gaziantep (with a short leg through Syria).

The train, which carried 13 passengers, runs along a line built a century ago by German engineers who helped create a rail link that stretches from Berlin to Baghdad (the Haydarpasa station on Istanbul's Asian side was constructed as part of the same project). From the BBC's report about the renewed rail service:
The revived rail link symbolises the increasingly close ties between the three countries [Turkey, Syria and Iraq].

Having overcome its fear of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey now does about $10bn of trade with Iraq's Kurdish regional government every year - about 80% of goods sold there are Turkish.

Relations between Iraq and Syria are more fragile - in the past Syria has been accused of backing the insurgents behind several big bomb attacks in Iraq.

But trade between them - and between Syria and Turkey - is growing rapidly.
Turkey is gradually upgrading its railway network with high-speed routes and Iraq also plans big investments in its railways.

The Turkish government is now talking of a fast rail link running all the way to Pakistan.
You can read the full story here. An AFP report is here.

The railway desk at Ankara's "zero problems with neighbors" policy department certainly seems to be very active these days. Along with the Mosul line, Turkey is building a fast train link between Gaziantep and Aleppo in Syria and is part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project, which conceivably could end up being linked up to a rail network that stretches all the way to China.

[UPDATE -- I forgot to originally also mention Turkey's ongoing Marmaray tunnel project, which will create an underwater rail link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Currently, trains heading from Europe to Asia (or the other way around), need to be put onto ferries that take them across the Bosphorus. Once Marmaray is complete, there will be an uninterrupted rail line between the two continents.]

Despite its lack of speed, it would seem that the slow train from Mosul might be a harbinger of important things to come. Turkish foreign policy watchers might now need to add trainspotting to their list of activities.

(graphic from the BBC)

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