Uzbekistan: The Little Engine That Couldn’t
You might call it the train in vain. And it has troubling implications for a US plan to stoke East-West trade via a New Silk Road, as well as keep American and NATO troops well supplied in Afghanistan.
When it was launched in late summer, authorities boasted that a new high-speed train linking Tashkent and Samarkand symbolized Uzbekistan’s rapid modernization. But the train ran for only a couple of weeks before service was suddenly suspended without explanation. The train – named Afrosiyob in honor of a mythic king who unified Central Asia -- now stands as an embarrassing reminder of dysfunction at the state railway company.
The country’s civilian railway system features about 4,500 kilometers of track, making it, in theory, an ideal bridge connecting Asia and Europe. Drawing on its Soviet-era status as Central Asia’s transit hub, Uzbek officials still like to believe that all railroads go through Tashkent. And authorities in Tashkent likewise are said to be proponents of the New Silk Road concept.
But there is a disconnect between Uzbek rhetoric and actions. Over the past 20 years, Uzbekistan has neglected investment in infrastructure while steadily erecting barriers that hamper trade with neighboring republics. These days, Tashkent often closes borders suddenly and without explanation. Neighbors are suspicious and, as recent events underscore, see few reasons to consider Uzbekistan a partner.
Since November 17, Tashkent has suspended the movement of freight cars bound for southern Tajikistan, saying a terrorist attack damaged a bridge. But Tashkent’s refusal to discuss the incident has boosted suspicions in Tajikistan and abroad that Uzbek authorities purposely sabotaged the track to hinder Dushanbe’s construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power plant, and keep Tajikistan from becoming a significant player in the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a vital US and NATO supply line to Afghanistan. Almost all US and NATO supplies shipped by rail into northern Afghanistan pass through Uzbekistan. Difficulties with neighbors are having an adverse effect on state-run Uzbekistan Temir Yullari’s (UTY) profitability, said a Tashkent-based expert who follows the rail industry. “Officials often paint a cheerful picture [of conditions at UTY], but the reality is more complicated. Relations with neighbors are not good, and this affects trade and transportation. Mismanagement and corruption can be seen at every level [of UTY and other state enterprises],” said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity. An official at the Ministry of Economy said promises that UTY would be privatized and thus become more competitive had been tabled.
To the north, Kazakhstan, which has overtaken Uzbekistan as the region’s strongest economy, appears to be responding to Uzbekistan’s delays in kind. In mid-November, state rail company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZh), suspended all freight wagons bound for Uzbekistan, according to Kazakhstani media reports. The Ferghana.ru news website suggested the move was a response to Tashkent’s restrictions on Kazakh freight bound for Afghanistan. The ban was supposed to be lifted on December 12, but was extended until January. Kazakh news outlets report KTZh is looking for alternative routes to Afghanistan through Turkmenistan.
“During this period, people are busy stocking up on goods for winter,” said Kazakh Zerno, a news agency specializing in agricultural issues. “The suspension of shipments has created shortage of many goods [in Uzbekistan]. If KTZh does not resume shipment of goods in the southern direction, the situation in these countries will grow even more tense, leading to public disturbances.” Kazakh Zerno. The outlet blamed Tashkent for the suspension.
Coupled with these high-profile international disputes, the Afrosiyob high-speed train flop has left many Uzbeks skeptical of their government’s commitment to improving quality of life in the country.
Afrosiyob’s maiden journey August 29 received extensive coverage in the state-controlled press. "Introducing the first Central Asian high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand, on the eve of our country's 20th anniversary, demonstrates not only serious progress in this sector, but also the great potential of domestic rail transport, which now occupies the leading position in the region,” said an August 31 commentary distributed by the official UzA news agency.
Built in Spain and equipped with nine passenger cars, including a restaurant, the Afrosiyob class of trains can carry 215 passengers and travel at up to 250 kilometers per hour on the Tashkent-Samarkand line, halving a four-hour journey on a regular train. Authorities say they have upgraded the track between Tashkent and Samarkand. A second, nine-car, two-engine Afrosiyob train arrived in Tashkent in early December, raising hopes of a fast resumption of service. The total cost of the project is 38 million euros.
Authorities have kept tight lipped about why high-speed train service was suspended in early September, though initial reports suggested the first Afrosiyob train either caught fire or derailed.
In terms of public perception, Afrosiyob’s launch was a massive bust. “Many people are reluctant to take the train because of safety concerns. The trains are too fast for the railway which has not been upgraded for a long time,” said Sohibjon, a resident of Tashkent.