Azerbaijan’s railroad supporters say their country is the crucial link between east and west, the missing tie that speeds goods from the east to the markets of the west. A fast, efficient railroad system is, some experts say, both the key to regional integration and an enormous economic engine—a system that, in the first five months of 2014, carried over 8 million tons of freight. Over 70 percent of that freight is oil, and the focus now is on getting it from the edge of the Caspian Sea to the country’s western border with Georgia.
“Today we ship about 3,000 tons of freight to central Azerbaijan in about 11 or 12 hours,” says Tofig Masirov, who is the chief of the Bilajari Locomotive Depot. “With new locomotives, the trains can move 5,000 tons, minimum, in half that time.” Masirov is in the right place to watch the changes coming.
Twice as Much, Twice as Fast
With support from the World Bank, and for the first time in 30 years, Azerbaijan is investing heavily in its railroads. Among the improvements are 50 new locomotives. Others include improved signals and switches, staff training and a reorganization of the way the railroad company does business, moving from government control to a joint stock company. The project refurbished 500 kilometers of track. The country’s goals for the railroad improvements are ambitious.
“Who is going to benefit the most is obviously the small and medium sized businesses, the regional businesses, but beyond that, it is really going to have a transformational impact on the entire region as a whole,” says Taleh Ziyadov, a research fellow at Baku’s ADA University and the author of a study titled “Azerbaijan As a Regional Hub in Central Eurasia.”
A typical train runs from Baku to Georgia loaded with 40 cars’ worth of oil. Right now, though, the locomotive pulling those 40 cars is long past its expected life span; 95 percent of the country’s locomotives are past their prime. The powerful new locomotives will be able to pull trains 70 to 80 cars long, carrying oil and goods from Azerbaijan and from places farther east, like Kazakhstan.