The 10th meeting of high ranking Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul Railway Project workgroup, better known as the ECO Train was recently convened aimed at the urgent revival of this major regional economic plan.
The spokesman of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry expressed certainty during his last week’s press conference that the ECO Train project will be put to use during the new Christian year.
Nikkei Asia economic news agency, too, wrote in a report that Iran, Turkey and Pakistan will put to use a railway that will link Istanbul, Tehran and Islamabad (ITI) in the year 2021. It is expected that the revival of the ITI ECO Train will through a rail-link join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, and is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived.
The roots of this macro-scale project can be traced to ECO’s 2009 container carrying train. The Economic Cooperation Organization or ECO is an Asian political and economic intergovernmental organization that was founded in 1985 in Tehran by the leaders of Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. It provides a platform to discuss ways to improve development and promote trade and investment opportunities.
Yet, the container carrying service launched by ECO merely proceeded up to the launching stage and was never fully used. Even the three countries will for opening the passenger trains along with cargo trains service among them has yet never been implemented yet.
The 6,540km railway’s length is more than one-sixth of the earth belt. It includes 1,950 kilometers in Turkey, 26,600 kilometers in Iran, and another 1,900 kilometers in Pakistan. Traveling from Islamabad to Istanbul by the ECO Train takes 10 days and is a lot faster than the 21-day sea voyage between Turkey and Pakistan.
A Pakistani state official who spoke to Nikkei Asia on condition of anonymity said that the ITI ECO Train will link through Pakistan’s ML-1 railroad to China’s Uyghur-Xinjiang region, which is the major China-Pakistan economic zone and within China’s BRI mega-project. The completion of the project is scheduled for the year 2026.
Economic observers believe the ITO ECO Train is the western side continuation of China’s BRI project. Lukasz Przybyszewski, a West Asia analyst in Asia Research Center of Warsaw War Studies Academy believes China considers the Iranian railways in particular, and the ECO railways in general as a major part of its BRI mega-project. During the war and crisis times, the land commercial routes are very precious and useful substitutes for the sea and airways.
He added that China considers those three countries (Iran, Pakistan and Turkey) as active partners in its BRI project that need further investments with very precise planning in this project.
The ITI will be the first regular China-Turkey rail service.
Yet, there is also an indirect possibility. On Dec 19, 2020 a train traveled through Turkey, Azerbaijan Republic, and the Caspian Sea to China’s Xian city, in that country’s Shaanxi province, on the northeast side of Xinjiang province, which is at the farthest eastern end of the Silk Road, which once connected Ancient China to the Mediterranean region.
This path, known as the East-West Trans-Caspian Corridor, travels through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railways and the economic analyst believe China can develop its BRI project through both paths.
James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University says that Beijing’s decisions on privileges and superiority of the ITI path towards Xian will eventually reflect China’s geopolitical economic ambitions.
Dorsey said that in Beijing’s stands and approach, Turkey is a significant economic market and in the long-run having numerous railways connecting China and Turkey will be very ideal for Beijing.