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Baku-Tbilisi-Kars – Commerce or Politics

In October 2017, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad was officially inaugurated. The project’s authors asserted that this section would work as the shortest route from China to Eastern Europe, and serve both cargo and passenger trains.

What do we have in reality? What type and what volume of cargo has been transported through this year? Neither the government nor the railroad have publicized any information about this issue. According to the Turkish government, in the first year, a total of 116 trains transported 110,000 tons of cargo. According to specialists, this is a very small volume for the project, which financed only the Georgian section  775 million USD.

The countries involved in the project have not introduced a joint tariff policy, and trains run at very low speed. These factors are considered to be key defects for the route. According to analysts, the Trans-Asia corridor, which crosses Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, is the main competitor for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars section.

A high-speed Trans-Asia route is more profitable, and will be even more so in the near future, as  the speed will go up to 200km/hour, and its competitive capacity will increase. It should be noted that 120km/h is the highest speed  for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad. However, there is one factor that leads analysts to presume that the current situation may change. The issue is of course the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

According to specialists, if the current situation remains unchanged ,or it worsens in the near future, part of the Trans-Asia cargo may be redirected to the South Caucasus.

At this stage, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad transports two sorts of cargo to the west: cargo for Turkey and cargo for Europe.

Since cargo transport will be limited through the Marmarai Tunnel (the tunnel will serve only for  cargo transport for 6 hours, when the Istanbul subway line is closed), and this cargo will be directed to Europe through the seaports of Turkey. Consequently, cargo flow to Europe will miss Georgian Seaports.

According to specialists, for several years Georgia should not expect to receive considerable revenues from cargo transit. The situation may change if cargo transit volume grows. Initially, the annual cargo turnover will be 6.5 million tons, while in the long-time the figure may rise to 17 million tons.

Railroad specialist David Gochava noted that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway corridor will bring benefits to Georgia only in one case: if Georgian Railway carries out transit from Akhalkalaki to  Turkish railways. However, Gochava says that it is questionable whether the current management of Georgian Railway is able to carry out this project.

The total length of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is 826 kilometers, including a 503 km section in Azerbaijan, a 255 km section in Georgia and 68 kilometers in Turkey. Initially, this route is expected to transport 1 million passengers. According to design calculations, this figure will rise to 3 million passengers by 2030.

By Zurab Khachapuridze