Bringing the Caucasus closer to Europe: Georgia completes its section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway
The railway network linking Baku, Tbilisi and Kars completed the construction of the Georgian section this July, further realizing the goal of connecting the Caucasus with the rest of Europe.
The Azerbaijan based company Azer Road Service has built 29km of new rail track between Marabda and Kartsakhi that will comprise part of the Georgian section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway line. This included the construction of three, brand-new railway stations along the new route.
Azerbaijan has invested $850 million in the project, and has also loaned $775 million to Georgia, with an interest rate of one percent, for the renovation and construction of the Georgian segment of the railroad in a keen bid to get the project underway.
Since 1883, the capitals between Georgia and Azerbaijan have been linked by rail, providing a backbone for transportation within the South Caucasus region. This pre-existing route simplifies the construction of the BTK railway, since the rail track between Tbilisi and Baku, as well as Marabda and Akhalkalki, only require renovation and modernizing.
The majority of the railway line that needs new construction is located mainly on the Turkish side, spanning the 76km between Kars and Akhalkalaki, as well as the recently completed 29km within Georgia.
The key objectives of the BTK rail project are not only to improve transport communications between the three countries, but it will also improve the economic relations between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In combination with the plans to construct a tunnel underneath the Bosporus Straits, the BTK railway could finally act as an alternative land corridor between Asia and Europe that bypasses Russia.
However, the history behind the BTK railway has not always been smooth. There was a wave of controversy surrounding the project due to its exclusion of Armenia, whose conflict with Azerbaijan over the de facto region of Nagorno-Karabakh has left it physically impossible to pass the railway line through the country due to the closed borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Armeniaís isolation from the project will result in the countryís further marginalization in the region, excluding the country from regional economical projects and investment that the BTK railway will bring in from outside.
While the trilateral agreement between Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan was made in 2007, and the Turkish part of the railway commenced construction in 2008, but the original scheduled completion date of 2010 was pushed back due the South-Ossetian conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008.
Now the project is back on schedule, and even though the work between Turkey and Georgia is set to finish by the end of 2012, this by far the end of the story.
After the delays due to the South-Ossetian conflict, the date for opening the route to passengers and cargo was pushed to the end of 2012, and then moved to 2013 and finally predictions cite the BTK railway will only be open for operation in 2014. This final delay has been attributed to the composite topography in both Turkey and Georgia, and the severe weather conditions that have been affecting the South Caucasus region in the last few years.
New developments will be implemented along the railway line, including a new station built by the German architect Jьrgen Mayer at Akhalkalaki, a wheel change centre and 4km tunnel that will link the Turkish-Georgian border.
Whether the line will be open in 2013 or 2014, one thing thatís for sure is that the future is bright for the BTK railway and the opportunities it will bring Georgia.
By Jennifer Walker