Asian neighbors Turkmenistan and Afghanistan on Monday opened the first section of a $2 billion link connecting their two countries by rail for the first time and set to extend to Tajikistan.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani attended the colourful celebrations featuring Turkmen traditional dancers.
A train pulling 46 freight cars completed the 3-kilometre journey from Turkmenistan’s Imamnazar customs point to Akina in Afghanistan.
This represents the tail end of an 88-kilometre (55-mile) link with Afghanistan that Turkmenistan began building back in 2013.
Berdymukhamedov said in a speech that the project “is written in golden letters in the history of our brotherly nations.” If completed, the 400-kilometre railway would boost trade between the three countries in a landlocked region where transport infrastructure is generally weak and could link up with other rail routes across Asia.
For commodity-rich former Soviet nation Turkmenistan in particular the freight link offers the opportunity to increase its energy exports to neighboring countries.
Nevertheless, the project is weighed down with concerns about security in Afghanistan that prompted key backer the Asian Development Bank to suspend support for it last year.
Neither Tajikistan or Afghanistan have yet built their sections in the route.
Tajikistan has said it will not begin work on its own section while Afghanistan remains embroiled in some of the worst fighting the country has seen since the US-backed invasion began in 2001.
Should the link be completed, another Central Asian nation, Kyrgyzstan, and the region’s top trade partner China have both expressed interest in linking up to the railway in the future.
Central Asia has a central place in China’s One Road One Belt strategy driving westward overland trade via key infrastructural investments. Turkmenistan and Afghanistan which were only previously connected by road are also participants in an ambitious $10 billion pipeline plan to send Turkmen gas to Pakistan and India.