Railway Development

Escape from the post-soviet 'Rail Ghetto'


Compatible railway track on Georgian and Azerbaijani sections of the Eastern Asia – EU corridor – First step towards establishing convenient European-standard transcontinental railway route

Authors: David Beritashvili (Tbilisi), Volodymyr Manko (Kyiv)

Sustainable increase of turnover between Asia and Europe 

Considering the fact that the only Southern Caucasian railway border crossing point on the Turkish-Armenian border has not been operational since 1993, the commencement of work on a European standard line connecting the railways of Turkey with the railway network of Georgia can be viewed as a welcome development. This new railway line from Turkish Kars up to Georgian Akhalkalaki promises to enhance integration of regional states into the European economic and cultural space, as well as to raise interest in the South Caucasus among Turkish and European investors and tourists.

The Kars-Akhalkalaki railway branch line is not just an important regional project for Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. This line also could become the missing link in the transcontinental Eurasian Transport Corridor, which serves the largest economic agglomerates of Eurasia – China and the European Union – as well as Turkey and neighboring Iran. The rapidly increasing turnover between Asian and European countries already exceeds one trillion of U.S. dollars. Transportation expenses on this route amounts to tens of billions of U.S. dollars with the bulk of transportation now provided by low-speed marine transport. That scenario would change drastically if a compatible fast-speed railway corridor became operational between Asia and Europe.

Considering less dramatic scenarios of global development, the increasing trend of cargo streams between the Eastern Asia and Europe would remain stable. Despite rapid integration of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (trends of other states of Central Asia are not clearly articulated) into the world economy, railway tracks along post-Soviet parts of the route still remain of Russian standard and, therefore, incompatible with European gauge used in Europe, Turkey, Iran and China.

This “mismatch” problem certainly has a historical and geopolitical background. In Russian Empire the construction of railroad network incompatible with standards basically used in developed countries was justified by the implicit threat of potential aggressors which could use Russian railroads to intrude deeper into Russian territory. Similar “defensive ideology” was willingly accepted in the USSR, which further isolated itself from the rest of the world by an ideological “Iron Curtain.” Furthermore, the extensive area of Russian Soviet-type railroads amazingly matches the geopolitical “Zone of Influence” ardently wanted to be restored by current inhabitants of Kremlin.

World Railway Networks

Fortunately, the reality of globalization propels countries and nations in the opposite direction – minimizing any barrier that hinders the transboundary movement of people, commodities and information. Among other factors impeding free movement is the phenomenon of incompatible standards of railway tracks in various countries.

European 1435 mm gauge is the railway standard most widely used worldwide with a total length of 720 thousand kilometers. Far behind on the second place is the Russian/Soviet standard 1520 mm (about 220 thousand kilometers). World economic leaders such as North America, China and Europe (excluding post-Soviet countries, as well as Finland, Ireland, Spain and Portugal) all have European railway tracks.

Harmonizing of incompatible railways into a uniform standard would provide the ideal solution. However, high cost and existing political realities shift full-scale unification to an indefinite perspective.

Current world practice demonstrates the necessity of various solutions (depending on local conditions and technological capacities) for those places at which different gauges meet:

(a) Replacing standard rail cars with special cars having removable wheel carts (bogies) and installing the equipment for changing bogies at the “junction” of different gauges (Picture 2);

(b) Replacing rail cars with more “advanced” ones that have a wheelbase of variable width, which could be easily readjusted from one standard to another;

(c) Integrating two different tracks one into another, allowing trains of both standards to cross the borders without changing bogies;

(d) Simple reloading goods from the trains of one standard onto trains with a different wheelbase at border railway stations.

Double reloading of cargo or substitution of all cars used on a given route with cars that have removable or variable bogies would only increase costs and decelerate the capacity of the future corridor. That would cause a decline in competitiveness versus the sea route and the main “land” competitor of the considered trans-Caucasian corridor – the Russian Trans-Siberian (Transsib) railway. It should also be noted that the frequent technical practice of changing bogies is basically used for light passenger cars whereas replacing bogies on heavy freight cars is relatively difficult.

Segment of Eurasian Corridor from China to the Caspian Sea

At present, the degree of usability of the Eurasian corridor for full-scale pass-through movement on various segments is quite uneven. The Kazakh part of the potential corridor (1520 mm) starts from the Dostyk (Druzhba) station on the Chinese border and ends at the ferrying spot in the Caspian port of Aktau.

At the time the major part of the railway in Kazakhstan was constructed, the main strategic concept was primarily different: the tracks were laid presumably from south to north to carry natural resources from Kazakhstan to industrial regions of the Soviet Union. The existing railway between Aktau and Dostyk connects mineral deposits dispersed throughout the country and, therefore, it is a rather tortuous route – almost double the distance of a hypothetical straight line between these two points. Hence, the existing internal route of Kazakhstan is not adapted for a competitive transit of goods. If Kazakhstan opts to become a full-scale member of the transcontinental corridor, it has to lay a new, straight European-standard railway between Aktau and Dostyk stations.

Hopes for increasing the capacity of the transcontinental corridor emerged at the beginning of this century. That was when Kazakhstan announced plans to lay European-standard tracks from Dostyk at the Chinese border via Aktogay, Jezkazgan, Beyneu to the Caspian port of Aktau, with a branch through Turkmenistan to the Iranian border (Gorgan station). However, those plans were later set aside. It is obvious that laying new railroad tracks “from the very beginning” would be a rather expensive enterprise; on the other hand, Kazakhstan is one of the “economic tycoons” of the post-Soviet zone… Furthermore, China with its huge economic potential is interested in the optimization of this transcontinental corridor and could be one of the major investors of this project.

Segment of the Corridor from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Border

At this stage, it is possible that Kazakhstan, due to financial shortages or for some other reason, will delay the construction of the “China-Caspian” Euro-gauge track for several years. In that case, construction of combined railroad tracks complying with both European and Russian standards — even if only in the Southern Caucasus area, from the Turkish border to the Caspian Sea — could drastically intensify freight and passenger movement between this region, Turkey and EU Member States .

 Launching direct “Tbilisi-Istanbul-Paris” or “Baku-Istanbul-Berlin” express passenger trains (without transshipment) would become much closer to reality. Having a Chinese Euro-track stretched up to the Kazakh border on the East, and the same Euro-tracks reaching Caspian ports from the West, might encourage Kazakhstan to refocus attention on its dismissed project of a straight “China-Caspian” European-gauge railway line. If such a breakthrough were to occur, equipping existing operational Caspian ferries (Pictures 6 & 7) with railway access and providing deck “parking” for both standards would not be difficult. Even more, the idea of diversification of Russian “exclusive” 1520 mm gauge could be attractive to Kazakhstan, which always tries to balance between two Eurasian “hegemonies”.


In the case if Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were unable to finance the conversion of the existing railway track (1520 mm) to double-gauge (1435/1520 mm), it would still be reasonable for Georgia to lay a combined track from Akhalkalaki up to Tbilisi. That would enable sensible savings on the re-equipment of bogies of large Georgian rolling stock, using instead European-type cars to transport both passengers and cargo to and from Europe. The same consideration could be applied to Azerbaijan.

However, if Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan were to decide to lay European track throughout their territories, then the most effective reply for Georgia would be construction of Euro-track from Tbilisi to Poti or to any other Georgian sea port currently being developed. The  

Black Sea region counts more than two-hundred million people – potential consumers of commodities from China and Eastern Asian countries as well as potential producers of goods that could be exported to Eastern Asia. Georgian ports could fill the niche of a transshipment terminal, sorting transit goods from Asia within the Black Sea basin.

Junction of Different-Standard Railways

The almost-guaranteed increase of cargo turnover between Europe and Eastern Asia requires that rational ideas would be incorporated into different projects in order to increase the transit capacity of the post-Soviet segment of the transcontinental corridor. Junction points of different gauges still remain “bottlenecks” of the corridor requiring effective technical solution. Currently, priority seems to be given only to the first or second option – replacing rail cars with removable wheel carts or, alternatively, with wheelbases of variable width – with all other possibilities disregarded. Putting aside the most costly “solution” – reloading cargo to and from different standard cars at railway junctions – the remaining options seem undeservedly overlooked, particularly the less-expensive option of combining different gauges. Keeping in mind the mountainous Southern Caucasian landscape, the optimal decision might well be the integration of Euro-track into existing Russian-standard railway lines.

Among the number of options for combining different gauges, the most simple and earliest one was the option of combining so-called narrow-gauge railways (1067 mm or less) with existing railways of European and Russian standards. This method does not require

changing main lines, embankments or overhead wiring, or widening bridges and tunnels. The only work to be performed would be laying an additional third rail between the two existing “main” rails, thereby making (parallel with one of the main rails) another inside track for narrow-gauge trains. 

The width of the rail foot usually varies from 130 to 150 mm (depending on type and manufacturer; Picture 9). When the difference between gauges exceeds the width of the footing, adding another 8-10 cm for a rail-fastening system, “embedding” the third rail into the existing track does not pose serious problems. For example, the section of Spanish railways (1668 mm) from Ciudad de Huesca up to the

French border is combined with a 1435 mm European track .

Combining the two most widespread world standards, European and Russian, with only a 8.5 cm difference, appears to be more complicated. Incorporating an additional rail between the exiting two is impossible because the rail foot is wider than the difference between these two standards. In this case, two pairs of rails would have to be incorporated into one railway track, where the left rail

paired with one of the two “inside” rails makes the first track (for example, 1520 mm), and provisionally pairing the right rail with the remaining “inside” one to make the second track 1435 mm. Unlike the narrow-gauge track, the combination of European and Soviet gauges requires replacement of ordinary 2600-mm sleepers with new, longer ones (2850 mm) designed for fixing four rails .

 According to preliminary calculations, altering an ordinary railway track into double-gauge would cost between 100-150 thousand USD per kilometer.

The cost calculation for “running meter” of an ordinary railway demonstrates that a major part of the expense comes from planning/designing/tracing. “Interweaving” different gauges into the existing railway would reduce those expenditures to a minimum. By focusing on popular concrete sleepers, only a 25 cm difference in length between two- and four-rail lines would allow to keep

 unchanged dimensions of embankment, railroad facility and overhead wiring.

“Interlacing” standards is quite frequently used in railway communications between bordering regions of the former USSR and EU Member States. Relatively short railway segments of this kind exist between the Polish border and Russian Kaliningrad (Picture 12), where one can see metal sleepers with better resistance to heavy trains that can be easily adjusted to the four-rail line. Belorussian Grodno is connected in the same way with Poland (Picture 13). In the Zakarpattya region of Ukraine, more than 100 kilometers of combined railways are already laid, although the main trains move along a 1520 mm standard track.


 Railway companies usually build dual-gauge tracks only for relatively short trans-border routes. For trips lasting only a few hours, it is not expedient to spend a lot of time changing bogies or adjusting the width of wheel pairs. The farther from the border is the destination point, the more it makes sense for carriers to change bogies. That is true for “non-standard” countries that have accumulated rolling stock with variable wheel base, for previous decades. Peculiar “railway ghettos” like post Soviet countries need a deeper analysis of economic and logistical aspects of the problem.

Given all these circumstances, Georgia and Azerbaijan could become pioneers in working out the construction details and eventually launching a successful operation of “interlaced” parts of long routes. If they accept proposed changes, the two countries could gain

direct access to the Mediterranean ports and, after completion of the railway tunnel under the Bosporus - to the network of European railways.

We hope that our purely qualitative analysis will convince economists, engineers and politicians to pay more attention to this problem.


The trade turnover between world economical giants — the European Union and Eastern Asia — is growing rapidly, now exceeding one-trillion USD. Expenses for shipment amount to tens of billions of U.S. dollars with service now uncontestably dominated by slow sea transport.

Construction of a railway line of European standard between Kars and Akhalkalaki will close the gap in the Eastern Asia – Europe railway corridor. But the competitiveness of much faster rail transportation on this route is limited by two factors: first, the incompatibility of Chinese and European railway systems (1435 mm width) with the post-Soviet railways of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia (1520 mm); second, the unfavorable configuration of the existing rail route on Kazakh territory (twice longer than the shortest distance between the Caspian seashore and the nearest Chinese railway station), which is oriented mostly on internal transportation and not on transcontinental movement. The optimization of the Kazakh part of the corridor would definitely take more time than equipping the relatively shorter Southern Caucasian segment for transit traffic. In our opinion, it is not reasonable to wait for completion of a European standard line between China and the Caspian Sea and to begin the embedding of European tracks into the existing Soviet-standard Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku line.

The cost of embedding is several times lower than the cost of building a new track. Thus, there is no necessity for expensive re-equipment of a large part of the Southern Caucasian rolling stock – the railway segment from Turkey up to the Caspian ports could become directly accessible for European cars. Later, when the Trans-Kazakh Euro-standard line comes into operation, Georgia could extend its Euro-tracks westward, up to Black Sea ports, converting them into transportation hubs capable of supporting the trade turnover between countries of the Eastern Asia and the Black Sea basin with population more than two-hundred million people.



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