Azerbaijan 2014 | TRANSPORT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Arif Asgarov, Chairman of Azerbaijan Railways, on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars link, innovation in the sector, and the connectivity of the country.

Arif Asgarov
Arif Asgarov graduated from Moscow Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner Institute of Railway Transport in 1982 with a specialty in Economy and Railway Management. After university, he began work as the Inspector General of the Finance Division of Azerbaijan Railways in 1982. Asgarov has held numerous positions in Azerbaijan Railways including Deputy CFO, CFO, and Chief Financial and Information Office, before becoming the Chairman in 2009.

The much anticipated Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway is due for completion by the end of 2014. How has the project progressed, and how will it improve the regional railway transportation of goods and people?

By joining the BTK new railway project, Azerbaijan has taken yet another step calculated for the future. I would like to note from the outset that in addition to the economic benefits the project entails, the BTK railway project is important from the standpoint of reaffirming Azerbaijan's central role in the region. Talks on the BTK railway began during a meeting of a joint Turkish-Georgian transport commission held in Ankara in July 1993. The logical culmination of project-related negotiations was the signing of the agreement on a start to the construction of the BTK railway, which took place during a working visit by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, to Georgia on February 7, 2007. The construction of the Georgian section of the BTK railway was launched at Marabda station in Georgia's Tetri-Skari region on November 21, 2007 and the Turkish stretch of the railway in the city of Kars on July 24, 2008. The new BTK railway project involves construction, rehabilitation, and reconstruction operations on the Marabda-Turkish border (Kartsakhi), and the Marabda-Akhalkalaki areas, and construction operations on the Akhalkalaki-Turkish border. Construction on the Turkish section of a 4.35-kilometer tunnel to connect Georgia with Turkey has already been completed. The length of the Georgian section of the tunnel is 2.07 kilometers, with construction still in progress. At the end of the ceremony, the heads of delegations from all three countries made the first welding seam on the railway using the KSM-005 mobile welding car. Azerbaijan has allocated to its neighboring countries a low-interest loan of $775 million for a period of 25 years. The first carriages are expected to start traveling along the BTK railway at the end of 2014, while the railway will become fully operational in 2015. The President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has always attached a special importance to the construction of the BTK railway. He has said, “We are creating major infrastructure projects. The construction of the BTK railway is powering ahead. This project will connect continents. It will be a project linking Europe with Asia." Initially, the railway is expected to transport 5 million tons of cargo per year, while in subsequent years the figure will rise to 15 million tons.

To what extent has innovation improved railway transport?

According to the Order “On approving the State Program on the development of the railway transport system in the Republic of Azerbaijan for 2010-2014," signed by the President on July 6, 2010, the process of replacing the automated signaling system with a microprocessor operated from a single control room has been launched. The system will enable technical and visual control over the movement of carriages, provide a direct communication link with the rolling stock personnel, facilitate the installation of safety devices to detect the overheating of rail car wheels, and ensure the complete automation of railway-automobile crossings. Bidding for the upgrade of the signaling and communication systems of the railway was announced in the latter half of 2013 and Swiss company Bombardier was declared the winner. In November-December 2013, Azerbaijan Railways and Bombardier experts jointly prepared the scope of Phase I of the Boyuk Kasik-Ganja section. The work is currently in the design and installation stage.

As a key part of Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), Azerbaijan is poised to benefit from increased regional trade. Based on the results of 2013, what has been the change in demand for cargo carried through Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is favorably located at the crossroads of this shortest transport link between Europe and Asia. National Leader Heydar Aliyev appreciated the importance for the nation of transport sector development. Therefore, in September 1998, Baku hosted an international conference on the restoration of the Great Silk Road, which was attended by heads of nine states (Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine), representatives of 13 international organizations, and delegations from a total of 32 countries. The Main Multilateral Agreement on the development of the Europe-Caucasus-Asia international transport corridor was signed on the basis of the TRACECA program and the Baku Declaration was adopted. Azerbaijan Railways is interested in increasing the volume of transit goods transported along the TRACECA corridor. The stable increase of transit volumes and the attraction of new cargo are among our top priorities. In order to enhance our competitiveness in comparison with alternative transport corridors of other countries, Azerbaijan Railways maintains effective cooperation with major carriers, legal entities, and private individuals, and applies a number of discount tariffs to the transit of oil and oil products. The Main Multilateral Agreement on the development of the Europe-Caucasus-Asia international transport corridor governs the discounts applied to the goods carried by railway. The concessions applied to the goods transported along the TRACECA corridor are largely determined by the volume and duration of transit.

How will the country's railway network contribute to the development of the energy sector and benefit from higher trade levels?

The signing of the Shah Deniz II final investment decision (FID) had a positive impact on the development of Azerbaijan's energy sector and boosted the country's importance in the energy market. This, in turn, means that the volume of oil and oil products transported by rail will increase in the near future. The transportation of such products is mainly carried out through the East-West corridor. In order to meet the growing demand and ensure the safety of transportation, a total of 317 kilometers of main railway lines have been overhauled in Azerbaijan according to the state program on the development of railways in 2010-2014. A project currently being upgraded is the signaling and communication systems, which is underway now. Naturally, the increased transit volume of oil and oil products will generate greater revenues for the railway system.

To what extent is your institution seeking to interconnect the railway network with ports and roads to facilitate the transportation of goods?

At a time when intermodal transportation has become widespread, the railway administration has been doing consistent work to keep pace. The construction of the Baku International Trade Seaport has begun an on area of 400 hectares in Alat. The port will play a pivotal role in handling transit goods proceeding along the East-West and North-South international transport corridors and in receiving and transporting key goods required by the national economy. The construction of the new port will be carried out in three stages. The completion of the first stage will enable the transportation of up to 10 million tons of cargo and 40,000 TEUs. The second phase will facilitate the transportation of up to 17 million tons of cargo and 150,000 TEUs, while the third phase will provide for the transportation of up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEUs. The construction of the first stage of the port is scheduled for completion in July 2014. Therefore, in light of the fact that up to 25 million tons of cargo will be processed by the Baku International Trade Seaport in the near future, work is now underway to expand the throughput capacity of the Alat and Yeni Alat stations. Talks regarding the design of the stations are currently under way with the relevant government agencies. The commissioning of the Baku International Trade Seaport provides an impetus to the development of the associated railway infrastructure.