HERAT: An Iranian goods train carrying tonnes of agricultural products chugged into a western Afghan province on Thursday as the two countries marked the opening of their first shared railway network.
The train route so far links the Iranian city of Khaf with the Afghan town of Rozanak about 150 kilometres away, but is scheduled to be expanded to reach Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city.
The $75 million project began in 2007, with Iran funding construction on both sides of the border as part of its development assistance to Afghanistan.
Crowds of Afghans gathered at Rozanak station for the arrival of the first blue-painted train.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, addressing the inauguration ceremony via video link, welcomed the move as an “important step for economic revival and development in both the countries”.
He called the railroad “a precious gift from Iran” that would help restore the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that spread prosperity across Asia. The inauguration saw cargo trains depart from opposite ends of the line.
The project was a gateway to Europe for Afghanistan, said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “I see the prosperity of Iran and Afghanistan in this railway,” he said, also speaking via video link from Tehran.
“The development, security and stability of Afghanistan (contributes to) development, security and stability in Iran and the entire region.”
He said Iran had succeeded in building the line despite sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the US withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.
Residents of Rozanak welcomed the new link. “It is going to change our villages, towns and cities into business hubs,” said Arbab Ghulam Reza, a farmer.
“It was also very difficult for our young boys to go to Iran for work. Now they can simply buy a train ticket and go.” Once completed, the 225km network would help transport six million tonnes of goods and a million passengers annually, officials said.
The Khaf-Herat network would later be connected to Central Asian and Chinese rail networks, officials said.
Decades of war and neglect have destroyed Afghanistan’s infrastructure, making its roads and bridges nearly impassable.
But despite the worsening security situation, efforts to rebuild roads and railway networks have always been a top priority of the Afghan government and the donor community.