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Dostyk – Kazakhstan’s rail gateway to China

International Transport Journal from 14.08.2009

International customers are showing steadily growing interest in rail transport to/from West and Central Asia. Kazakhstan could develop into a hub for rail traffic between Europe and Asia. The border crossing point Dostyk, the only rail gateway between China and Kazakhstan, plays a pivotal role there. Kazakhstan is one of the countries that the Swiss service provider InterRail, a specialist for eastbound rail services, is focusing on. «This has to do with the increasing amount of interest in transport services to/from West and Central China that our international customers have been showing in recent years,» explained Hans Reinhard, managing director of the InterRail Holding in St Gallen. The railway’s relatively short transit time of 13–19 days from the Chinese hinterland to Central and Eastern Europe, and even as far as Western Europe, is an undoubtable advantage, compared to the number of days required for the sea route. In addition, the time taken to reach a Chinese port is steadily growing as the country’s economic development proceeds further inland. «Kazakhstan actually has great opportunities to develop into an attractive hub for Euro-Asian rail traffic. This fact holds true despite current instabilities in the rail transport sector due to the global financial and economic woes,» Reinhard observed.

Downturn opens up opportunities
The director is very pragmatic about the growth stoppage in Sino-Kazakh railfreight traffic and sees it as an opportunity to balance out certain problems. The time when thousands of railcars were waiting for clearance at the Sino-Kazakh border checkpoint Dostyk-Alashankou is over for the time being. He hopes that the current situation can be used to optimise operating processes at Dostyk-Alashankou and improve wagon management. «Although a second rail link between Kazakhstan and China has been planned, we will be obliged to live with the fact that there will only be a single railway border crossing point between the two countries for a few more years. The difficulties that crop up there need to be addressed too.»

Dostyk (formerly Drushba), Kazakh¬stan’s railway border crossing point to China, was created in the 1990s after Kazakhstan gained independence from the former Soviet Union. The Dostyk post gave the new nation its own rail gateway to China. The gap between the rail networks of China and Kazakhstan was closed by the construction of a track through the Dzungarian Gate, a narrow valley surrounded by high mountains. The geographical and climatic conditions there are rather inhospitable. «The railway staff and all the personnel who are responsible for managing train services and the border crossing post, and who perform their tasks in a reliable manner, have earned our respect,» Reinhard underscored.

Today, Dostyk and its Chinese counterpart Alashankou form an efficient, universal handling complex between China’s normal gauge rail network (1,435 mm track width) and the wide gauge system (1,520 mm) in use in the CIS. The SMGS legislation (agreement on international goods transport by rail) which is in force in Eastern Europe and which has been adopted by China and Kazakh¬stan, clearly states that freight handling between different railway systems is the responsibility of the accepting party. Therefore exports flowing to China are cross-loaded in Alashankou. Goods being shipped in the opposite direction are dealt with in Dostyk.

Close collaboration on both sides
All arriving trains are generally unloaded and the consignments are transferred to the other railway’s wagons. This means in practice that any increase in efficiency at this interface depends on the development of both sides. Moreover, the other party’s loaded trains have to arrive on time to ensure that sufficient empty railcars are available. The imbalance in goods flows leads to artificial constraints. All involved parties are relieved that China is finally discovering this western gateway to neighbours in Central Asia and even to destinations in Europe, as this has helped to reduce the inequalities in the volumes of shipments.

There is close cooperation between Kazakh Railways and the Urumqi railway administration, the branch of China’s railways that is responsible for Alashankou. This helps to prevent congestion on the only rail connection between the two countries. The two railways issued a joint report for the year 2008 on 26 December. The results showed that the volume of consignments passing the Dostyk-Alashankou border crossing post in 2008 amounted to around 12.6 million t of goods (approximately 4.5% more than in 2007). Some 6.152 million t originated in China, which equates to an increase of 1.1 million t, compared to the preceding year. According to last year’s figures, the border checkpoint handled eleven trains per day that were heading for China, and twelve trains per day that were going to Kazakh¬stan. This year, the border complex plans to process a volume of 13 million t. It will be difficult to achieve this target, given the current situation. However, increases in regional trade flows could compensate for the loss of other volumes. It is still impossible to say whether the political unrest in China’s Xinjiang province, to which Urumqi and Alashankou belong, will have an effect on goods flows.

Container traffic gaining ground
Information from both railways indicate that container transport rose substantially in 2008. A total of 133,865 boxes crossed the Dostyk-Alashankou border last year. Of this number, 91,567 containers that were cross-loaded in Dostyk were either in transit or were being imported into Kazakhstan. The greater part of these boxes were transported on Chinese «O» wagons and then transferred to flat-bed railcars or container wagons operated by CIS railways.

Greater attention is to be paid to container haulage in future. In line with this, it is intended to establish a joint venture for container transport services. Furthermore, some general improvements are to be achieved this year. The focus will be on electronic data exchange – in particular the electronic transfer of waybill details. Consignment processing has been carried out on a one-stop principle since the end of 2008. All the various services (customs, phyto-sanitary, veterinary, border inspections, etc) were relocated to a single site. This is also considered to be a way to reduce corruption.

«The complex task of developing the Dostyk railway border crossing point is a key element towards maintaining international train services on the trans-Asian magistral railways,» said Askar Mamin, the president of Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the country’s national rail transport provider, when explaining the next measures to expand and modernise Dostyk. The first plan focuses on Dostyk station, where a new axle-gauge changeover facility for 360 railcars per day is to be built. This will be complemented by groups of rail tracks for normal and wide gauge rolling stock, as well as by an additional handling complex. The second part of the plan is dedicated to improvements on the stretch of railway between Dostyk and Aktogai, where trains get access to Kazakhstan’s main railway network. The most important question – whether to build a double track electrified rail link along this route – has been apparently left open. Information from the Kazakh railway’s administration reveals that no money has been earmarked in its budget for such a project. The possibility of implementing the scheme by granting a concession has still not been considered.

Handling 25 million t per year
«The Kazakh government has set itself the task of raising the capacity of the Dostyk-Alashankou complex to 25 million t per year in the next decade. That goal cannot be achieved without augmenting the access route to the country’s main railway network,» InterRail’s managing director estimated. His company wants to use intelligent solutions for the transport services that it controls to help enhance the attractiveness of the rail connection via Kazakhstan. «We are currently examining the possibility of sending some of our container traffic to China via Dostyk and weighing up the roll-out of new services for customers on this route. We have spotted interesting opportunities thanks to our representation in China and our parent corporation TransInvest’s dense network in the region,» the far-sighted manager declared. Reinhard and other experts are of the opinion that if the SMGS agreement were to be more flexibly administered, then capacities on both sides of the border crossing could be better exploited. As a matter of principle it should be possible to form trains destined for China on the Kazakh side of the border in Dostyk. «Obtaining a stake in a logistics centre in or around Dostyk could be of interest to our group,» Reinhard ventured to say. «We know that a number of Kazakh and international groups are about to get a foothold in or around Dostyk, as this could benefit their business in future. Some of the entities have already purchased tracts of land in Dostyk and plan to develop and offer a range of logistics services for the whole of Central Asia from that location. I am therefore certain that we can expect to see some new interesting developments.» 

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