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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
China to Europe rail-link planned
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC correspondent in Almaty

Officials in Kazakhstan say they are planning a railway link that will speed up transit between China and Europe.

The Kazakh rail chief told the BBC work would shortly begin on the first part of a 3,000 kilometre train line to link China to Iran and the Caspian Sea.

It is hoped the time cargo from Pacific Ocean ports takes to reach western Europe will eventually be cut by half.

The current time freight takes on the same journey is 50 days by sea, or 15 days using the Trans-Siberian railway.

Trans-Siberian railway
The new line would be much faster than the Trans-Siberian link

"It will definitely be faster than the Trans-Siberian railway," the head of Kazakhstan's national railways, Yerlan Atamkulov said.

"If today on the Trans-Siberian railway freight takes 15-16 days, then on the Kazakhstan transit railway, it will take eight days."

Kazakh and Russian railways use broad gauge tracks while Europe and China use international narrow gauge tracks.

Kazakhstan intends to build a new narrow-gauge railway line straight across its vast territory to the Caspian Sea, eliminating the time and cost needed to transfer goods from narrower to wider trains at the Chinese border.

From the Caspian, the plan calls for the construction of new rail links south to Turkmenistan, to Iran and on through Turkey.

Grand schemes

The Kazakh government says building its section of the new railway will cost $5-6bn.

Construction will take place in several stages, with financing drawn from international and Chinese banks.

Beijing, with its economy and exports booming, has expressed interest in the plan.

The Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is to visit Beijing next month and will no doubt try to push the project forward in his meetings with Chinese leaders.

Earlier this week, 23 Asian nations, including both Kazakhstan and China, signed an agreement in Shanghai to build an international highway network across Asia linking Tokyo with Istanbul in another grand scheme to improve transport links across Asia.

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