Afghanistan’s first railway in almost a century is due to be completed before the year’s end, officials said, with the aim of not only boosting the country’s economy but also supplying NATO troops there.

The $170 million project, the bulk of which is being funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will see a 75km (50 mile) stretch of single track linking Afghanistan’s main city in the north, Mazar-i-Sharif, to Uzbekistan.

The railway, which only broke ground in late 2009, is due to be completed later this year and will greatly ease the flow of goods from the Uzbek border, which currently serves as a gateway for nearly half Afghanistan’s imports, the ADB said.

“This is rather exceptional, usually this kind of project implementation takes three to four years, so this is very fast and very expeditious,” ADB President Haruhiko Kuroda told reporters during a visit to the Afghan capital.

While acknowledging the current stretch of railway may be modest, the ADB says the plan is to eventually extend the connection southwest to the city of Herat and south to Kandahar city, linking the network to Iran and Pakistan.

A separate Iranian-funded line is being built from Herat to the Iran border, which will eventually link Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, although that project has been met with delays. Although the new line is being dubbed Afghanistan’s first railroad, the country did briefly have a short stretch of rail during the 1920’s when King Amanullah, who sought to modernise his country, built a 7km (4 mile) steam train link, connecting his palace in Darrulaman with Kabul city.

That line soon fell into disrepair and the only reminder today is the rusting shell of one of the locomotives sitting in the grounds of Kabul’s museum.

New Beginning
“This is just the beginning of railroad construction in this country,” said Kuroda.

“Afghanistan is located in a very strategically important position. If railway links with surrounding countries are established, Afghanistan can become a regional hub for freight investment and various economic activities in the region.”

The new line will also be an invaluable asset for the tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops fighting a resurgent Taliban in the country, by providing an alternative and improved supply line for shipments from the north.

“It can and will make a big difference. We can get fuel and other equipment from the north much easier into the area,” said a NATO spokesman, German Lieutenant-Colonel Goetz Hasske.

Although U.S. and NATO forces have already been using Central Asia as a supply route to compliment lines that run through Pakistan, cargo currently has to be offloaded onto trucks once it reaches the Afghan border causing long delays.

The new rail link would speed up the transport of supplies to international forces, who have greatly expanded their use of the Central Asian route over the last year, mainly due to increasing insurgent attacks on their convoys coming in through Pakistan.

But with insurgents moving out of their traditional strongholds in the south and the east of the country in recent months and launching increasing attacks in the north, the railroad may provide an “easy target”, said Hasske.

“Whether its the Pakistan border or a 75 kilometre railway, it’s not easy to protect. You cannot protect it 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week,” he said.

Hasske said there had already been some insurgent threats against the railway, but that security from Afghan and international security forces had been stepped up in the area. (Reuters)