Mr. Biden’s election as US president signals possible changes in US foreign policy that could extend to affecting the movement of containers between India and Western Europe. The Trump administration had imposed sanctions on Iran that discouraged India’s participation in developing a railway line from a port in southeastern Iran to connect to Tehran . A new president suggests that could change.
While ships carry most of the containers that move between China and Western Europe, customers looking for faster delivery send a small percentage of containers by rail. During the month of July 2020, more than 1,200 container trains traveled between China and Europe, or about 40 trains per day. The different rail gauges between China and Russia lead to tedious manual transfers of rail equipment and containers to borders, resulting in the operation of short trains carrying single levels of containers, at high operating costs per train. . The southern route through Iran involves the same standard rail gauge between China and Europe.
Before the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions on Iran, India appeared interested in helping develop a section of the north-south railway line in Iran. The line would extend north from the port city of Chabahar to existing rail lines that connect to Tehran. Ferries carry trains across Lake Van along the Tehran-Ankara rail link, limiting the length of container trains. A new rail bypass constructed along the Euphrates Valley between northwest Iran and eastern Turkey may be possible and connect to existing rail lines west of Lake Van.
Alternative rail link
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in the development of rail transport in the region, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rail link between Muscat, Oman and Kuwait. A railway line connects the port city of Basra in southern Iraq to Mosul in northern Iraq, with extensions in southern Turkey and northern Syria. Civil unrest in Iraq and northern Syria will disrupt future rail traffic between southern Iraq and southern Turkey. The ongoing civil unrest strengthens the business case for the rail link between the Iranian port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman and eastern Turkey.
Political tensions between India and China would likely delay the development of a direct rail line between Tehran and Ankara, bypassing Lake Van. The continued close political ties between China and Iran could see China investing in the development of the Chabahar port, potentially discouraging India from moving intermodal containers to Chabahar. As a result, India is expected to consider an alternate rail route through the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq between Muscat, Oman and Ankara, Turkey, to carry stacked container trains aboard long trains. This route bypasses lakes where ferries carry trains.
Political tensions between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran could prompt Saudi Arabia to expand the development of the railway line between Muscat and Kuwait for fast passenger trains and container trains. The sea distance between Mumbai and Muscat is almost identical to that between Mumbai and Chabahar, with a shorter rail distance between the Gulf of Oman and southern Turkey via the Saudi Peninsula. If China were to resolve political tensions with India, there might be a possibility of cooperation to build a bypass around Lake Van, to transit long container trains.
A common rail gauge across Iran between China and Ankara, also between the Gulf of Oman and Ankara via Tehran which bypasses Lake Van, would allow the operation of long container trains including locomotives at mid-length. train, with the possibility of using double-stacked containers. India operates double-decker container trains. US Railways introduced mid-train locomotives split into extremely long double-stacked container trains. Such an operation would significantly reduce the costs of container transport along the Middle Eastern rail lines that cross Iran as well as the Emirates and Iraq. The Turkish president could probably seek to develop a bypass around Lake Van.
The Indian export trade should expect a ship sailing at 12 knots to take three weeks to undertake the voyage between the ports of Mumbai and Rotterdam, followed by eight days by train to Rotterdam. The railway line between Muscat and Ankara would likely be able to handle long container trains including mid-train locomotives. Such an operation would reduce the costs of container transport, a saving not possible when using a ferry to transport short sections of train across Lake Van. However, civil unrest in northern Iraq and northern Syria could hamper international rail transport.
The increase in Indo-European trade has the potential to support the operation of twice-daily long-length container trains traveling in each direction between Western Europe and the port of Muscat. There is additional potential for trains to carry trade between Europe and the Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Depending on international cooperation, it might be possible to develop the Muscat – Ankara rail line to transit double stack container trains, with a single stack operation between Ankara and Rotterdam. Trains would cross the Bosphorus at the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge with a future rail / road tunnel being planned.
The Trump administration has indirectly discouraged India from helping develop the railway line in the southeastern region of Iran, to allow trains to travel between Tehran and the port of Chabahar. Parallel rail development across the Arabian Peninsula makes possible a rail connection between Muscat, Oman and Ankara, Turkey. Such a development offers India an alternative choice to move priority container traffic at a higher speed than ships to Europe. However, ongoing civil unrest in northern Iraq and northern Syria is making the railway line between Tehran, Iran, and Ankara, Turkey more attractive.
Although cooperation is unlikely between China and India as the construction of a bypass line around Lake Van in southeastern Turkey, such bypass would allow trains to operate. long container ship with mid-train locomotives along the southern international rail line between China and Turkey. , via Iran. Once developed, this southern line would result in lower container transport costs than frequent short trains using the gauge-change rail line that crosses Russia. A future rail tunnel under the Bosporus would improve rail transport for Asia-Europe containers.
Harry Valentine is a regular contributor to The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.