A multi-nation conference on trans-Asia connectivity has opened in New Delhi to explore the possibility of a rail freight service connecting India with Iran and Turkey.
The two-day event brings together railway and custom officials from Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, and India along with government officials, policy-makers and experts.
Indian Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu on Wednesday addressed the conference, highlighting the need for rail connectivity for the development of the region.
While the event is focused on strengthening cross-border railway transport within South and Southwest Asia, it is complementary to a wider effort to develop an intercontinental route which is believed to transform economic patterns between Asia and Europe.
The railway would link up with the North-South Transport Corridor, which aims to connect Russia, Iran and India.
Both projects could loop up with China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road, making each of the connections even more feasible.
The projects are not merely being driven forward by economic dynamics. Geopolitical considerations have provided added momentum.
For China, these integrated transport networks provide a counterbalance to US “pivot” to Asia, while Russia seeks to expand economic ties with India after blocking food imports from the European Union.
For Iran, the route offers a buffer against future pressures after the country came under the most intensive Western sanctions over its nuclear program between 2011 and 2015.
Earlier this month, Iran and Azerbaijan inaugurated a 10 km rail link – one of the missing final pieces of the North-South Transport Corridor which is about to be completed this year after 17 years.
Iran and Azerbaijan are both eager to establish themselves as regional transportation hubs between Asia and Europe, while other countries across Asia are trying to tap into these emerging networks.
China has already run a freight train connecting Europe. Dry runs of the North-South Transport Corridor were conducted in 2014, from Mumbai in India to Baku in Azerbaijan and Astrakhan in Russia via Bandar Abbas in Iran.