The Baku–Tbilisi–Kars or Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway (BTAK), became operational on October 30, 2017. This is a regional rail link project to directly connect Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The project was originally to be completed by 2010, but was delayed to 2013, 2015, 2016, and following a fifth trilateral meeting in February 2016, the three countries' foreign ministers announced that the railway would finally be completed in 2017.
Following the first test run by a passenger train from Tbilisi to Akhalkalaki on 27 September 2017, the BTK was inaugurated in the ceremony hosted by the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev in Alyat on October 30, 2017.
Passenger trains will feature new sleeping coaches.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project is intended to complete a transport corridor linking Azerbaijan to Turkey (and therefore Central Asia and China to Europe) by rail. (In late 2015, a goods train took only 15 days to travel from South Korea to Istanbul via China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—considerably less time than a journey by sea.) The line is intended to transport an initial annual volume of 6.5 million tonnes, rising to a long-term target of 17 million tonnes.
The Tbilisi–Baku railway (the Transcaucasus Railway) was completed in 1883, and has since remained the backbone of Transcaucasia's railway network.
By 1899, a branch line (Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway) from Tbilisi to Marabda to Gyumri (then Alexandropol) to Kars was completed. Due to the poor state of relations between Armenia and Turkey this branch line has been abandoned.
In 1986, the construction of a 160km branch railway line from Marabda (on the Tbilisi-Gyumri line, 23km south of Tbilisi Junction) west to Akhalkalaki was completed. However, this branch fell into disuse at a later stage.
History and construction
Kars–Tbilisi–Baku railway on Georgian stamp, 2013
In 1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia—closing the Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway, which goes through Armenia—to support Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia following the Nagorno-Karabakh War. A railroad project between Azerbaijan and Turkey through Georgia, intended to provide an alternative to the closed route, was first discussed in July 1993.
A multi-lateral accord to build the link was signed by the three countries in January 2005. Because of a lack of funding at this time, this project was more or less abandoned. However, during the inauguration of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline in May 2005, the Presidents of Azerbaijan, of Georgia and of Turkey evoked once again the possibility of building a railroad between their three countries.
For the construction of the railroad on Georgian territory, Azerbaijan is providing a US$200 million loan to Georgia, repayable in 25 years, with an annual interest rate of 1%. A concessional loan agreement for this financing has already been signed between a Georgian state-owned company Marabda-Karsi Railroad LLC and Azerbaijan. Lately, Azerbaijan again allocated to Georgian government an additional $575 million at the rate of 5% per annum. As of September 2007, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan has allocated the first US$50 million installment of this loan. The European Union and the United States declined to assist in the financing or promoting of the line because they saw it as designed to bypass Armenia, supporting instead the reopening of the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railroad, thanks in part to pressure on the US Congress from Armenian lobbies in Washington like ARMENPAC or the Armenia National Committee in America. The EU did later "welcome the new rail corridor".
In February 2007 in Tbilisi, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed a trilateral agreement to launch the construction of the railroad the same year. On November 21, 2007, the presidents of Azerbaijan (Ilham Aliyev), Georgia (Mikheil Saakashvili), and Turkey (Abdullah Gül) inaugurated the construction of the railroad at a groundbreaking ceremony at the Marabda junction south of Tbilisi, and the first rails in Turkey began to be laid in July 2008 from Kars.
The Russo-Georgian War and environmental problems delayed the project from an originally projected completion date of 2010, to 2015 and subsequently later still.
In November 2014, Turkey's Transportation Minister, Lütfi Elvan, stated that 83% of the project had been completed. According to estimates, the railway line will be capable of carrying 17 million tons of cargo and about three million passengers by 2030.
On 30 January 2015 the first test train ran along the new (Georgian) stretch of track between Akhalkalaki and Kartsakhi in the presence of the Georgian Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and the Azerbaijani Minister of Transport, Ziya Mammadov. According to Kvirikashvili, 'major construction works on 180km railway are actually completed and every effort will be made to complete Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway works in late 2015.' In September 2015 it was announced in Georgian media that service would not begin before an unspecified time in 2016.
The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan (Elmar Mammadyarov), Georgia (Mikheil Janelidze) and Turkey (Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu) held a fifth trilateral meeting in Georgia on 19 February 2016, during which they travelled to the new Georgia-Turkey border crossing at Kartsakhi/Çıldır, subsequently hailing the railway project as “historic” and noting its importance for the region in the context of the new Silk Road. A week before the foreign ministers met, a seventh meeting of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars co-ordination council was held in Tbilisi, during which the Turkish and Azerbaijani transport ministers and the Georgian finance minister announced that the railway will be operational in 2017 when work on the Turkish section is completed.
The railway was officially inaugurated in the Alat Port of Baku, Azerbaijan on 30 October 2017 by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Representatives of TRACECA, international and financial organizations, official delegations of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were among participants of the ceremony. The ceremony had been announced 27 September by the Azerbaijani and Georgian ministers of foreign affairs following the first test run by a passenger train from Tbilisi to Akhalkalaki.
In his speech at the opening ceremony of the railway, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said: “The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is of great importance for the development of business and mutually beneficial cooperation. I am sure that the countries making the biggest contribution to regional cooperation – Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey – will always be together and support each other. Such giant projects as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway further strengthen our unity and friendship.”
The European Union welcomed the opening of the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway and referred it as a major measure for transport interconnections channeling the European Union with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Central Asia. In the statement it is stated that this rail corridor will ensure better network, create new business circumstances and increase quality of trade among the parties.
Objectives and political issues
The key objective of the project is to improve economic relations between the three countries and gaining foreign direct investment by connecting Europe and Asia. Some commentators in Armenia have viewed this new route as an attempt by Azerbaijan to bypass and isolate Armenia from regional economic projects.
However, the route through Armenia was politically impossible due to the unresolved war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to Samuel Lussac, "[the project] will contribute to further regional cooperation between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey," but it will also, "constitute a new stage in the further marginalization of Armenia within the South Caucasus." The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev in 2005 reportedly declared, "If we succeed with this project, the Armenians will end in complete isolation, which would create an additional problem for their already bleak future."
As further objectives, the railways is expected to provide stable goods turnover between Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and the countries located on the other side of the Caspian Sea. The formation of strong port infrastructure and transportation of oil and oil products to the world markets are also part of targets.
In total 105km of new line have been built between Kars and Akhalkalaki, with 76km within Turkey and 29km in Georgia. The existing railway line from Akhalkalaki to Marabda and on to Tbilisi and Baku has been modernized.
Its total length is 826km and it will be able to transport 1 million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight at the first stage. This capacity will then reach 3 million passengers and over 15 million tons of freight.
Georgia and Azerbaijan both use the Russian broad gauge of, and the existing section of railway line will not be modified. The new tracks, i.e. the Georgian section from Akhalkalaki to the border station at Kartsakhi and the new Turkish section from Kartsakhi to Kars, were built to the standard gauge used by Turkey. The line therefore features a break-of-gauge near Akhalkalaki, which requires either variable gauge, bogie exchange or cargo reloading. Passenger cars will be equipped with the DB AG/RAFIL Type V system of adjustable wheelsets to accommodate the change of gauge from 1,520mm to 1,435mm (standard gauge).
In June 2014, Azerbaijan Railways announced that they had signed a SFr 120 million contract with the Swiss firm Stadler Rail AG to supply 3 ten-car variable-gauge sleeper trains, to be delivered between mid-2016 and mid-2017. Each train will have a total of 257 beds, divided into first, second and "first/second" (family compartments) classes. The contract includes an option for a further 70 sleeping cars.
Each train will be made up of:
1 first-class car -
16 compartments all with en-suite toilet and shower
6 second-class cars -
34 beds sharing one toilet and one shower
1 "first/second"-class car -
20 beds, including family compartments
1 second-class car -
compartment for reduced mobility passengers, four second-class compartments with 16 beds, and a crew compartment
1 dining-car -