The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul railway begins freight service

Pakistan, Iran and Turkey look to boost regional commerce and ties through the over-4,000-mile train route.

 The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) train of the Economic Cooperation Organization at the inaugural ceremony for the over-4,000-mile route.  (photo credit: Pakistan Ministry of Railways)
The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) train of the Economic Cooperation Organization at the inaugural ceremony for the over-4,000-mile route.
(photo credit: Pakistan Ministry of Railways)

Freight rail service has begun operating between the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul, operating on a route more than 4,000 miles long. 

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The service previously ran on a trial basis in 2009-2011 and, after several abortive attempts to resume operations, the first train left Islamabad on December 21 and arrived in Iran on Sunday, on its way to Turkey’s Anatolia. The trains will take 12 days to 14 days to complete the journey – about half the time it takes by sea, and will be more cost-effective than by road. 

The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) train will proceed 1,235 miles inside Pakistan before crossing through the Taftan border crossing in the province of Balochistan to cover a 1,620-mile section in Iran. Before reaching its final destination, the train will travel 1,150 miles in Turkey, passing through the capital, Ankara. 

The ITI train service was launched in 2009 within the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Test runs were carried out but there was no consistent service.  

The ECO is an Asian political and economic intergovernmental organization founded in 1985 by the leaders of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. Currently, 10 countries are members: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The ECO’s secretariat and cultural department are located in Iran, its economic bureau is in Turkey and its scientific bureau is in Pakistan. 

POLICEMEN WALK near the national flags of Pakistan and Turkey displayed along a road ahead of a visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Islamabad in 2016.  (credit: FAISAL MAHMOOD/REUTERS)POLICEMEN WALK near the national flags of Pakistan and Turkey displayed along a road ahead of a visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Islamabad in 2016. (credit: FAISAL MAHMOOD/REUTERS)

A simple but dignified inaugural departure ceremony was held at the Margalla railway station in Islamabad, attended by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi; Federal Minister for Railways Azam Khan Swati; Abdul Razzak Dawood, adviser to the prime minister for commerce and investment; the ambassadors of Iran, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan; and a representative of the ECO. 

“The ITI train will be one of the most effective vehicles that can help in expanding exports, imports and trade between ECO member countries,” Dawood said during his address. 

“The resumption of the ECO freight train is a step toward better regional communication between the three countries, facilitating trade and public transportation for the long-term economic benefit of the region,” he added. 

Regional connectivity is an important pillar of the “Strategic Trade Policy Framework,” Dawood said. 

Swati in his speech said: “The operation of the container train from Pakistan to Iran and Turkey was an old dream of the countries of the region which has come true.” He added that the Railways Ministry is planning to run a passenger train between these countries in the near future. 

“We believe in and promote economic diplomacy that is the need of the hour, and this is a good start,” Qureshi said.

Syed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, Iran’s ambassador to Islamabad, tweeted that “the freight train services will play a vital role in improving the economies & lives of citizens of ECO member states by maximizing ECO efficiency & reducing the cost of doing business.”  

Pakistani officials believe the new service will open the way from Pakistan to Central Asia and Europe, which would lead to better trade relations between the ECO countries. 

Pakistan Railways Chairman Habib-ur-Rehman Gilani told The Media Line that “Pakistan attaches great importance to the maintenance of existing and expansion of relations with member countries of the Economic Cooperation Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” 

“Pakistan Railways is working hard to enhance regional cooperation among the member states of Eurasia and Central Asia,” he said. “The proposed trilateral agreement on the construction of the Trans Afghan Railway between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan is also a continuation of the inclusive policy of the government of Pakistan,” he added.

“In line with ECO Vision 2025, Pakistan Railways believes in the expansion of intra-regional trade which can earn vital revenues and play a crucial role in improving the economies and the lives of the citizens of the member states of ECO,” Gilani said. 

Imran Hayat, the spokesperson for the Pakistan Ministry of Railways, told The Media Line that “the resumption of the train is based on the consistent follow-up of the ECO agenda, which aims at opening up new avenues of cooperation between the countries of the region through rail connectivity.” 

“A renewed thrust to the efforts was given during the meeting of the ambassador of Iran with the federal minister for railways in November 2021, where the final timeline was set for the resumption of the train,” he continued.  

“The presence of the federal ministers and the ambassadors of the ECO member states during the inaugural ceremony shows the determination of the federal government for greater regional connectivity,” Hayat said. “The resumption of the ITI train will help in swelling regional trade activities.” 

He added that the “financial benefits of the train service may not readily be ascertainable; however, the economic viability will be high.” 

For its first run, the ECO train carried pink salt and dates, along with other cargo, for Turkey, he said. 

Zia Ul Haq Sarhadi, convener of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industries Central Standing Committee on Railways, told The Media Line that the train service “will help to improve trilateral trade and commerce activities and, likewise, it will play a pivotal role for the strengthening of trade and commerce activities in the region.” 

He added that the ECO train service will “promote regional tourism as well.” 

Sarhadi called on the government to launch a tourist train alongside the freight service. 

Irfan Shahzad Takalvi, an Islamabad-based, policy-oriented research analyst and founding president of the Eurasian Century Institute, told The Media Line that “the new rail linkage will indeed enhance connectivity, and thus provide the base for strengthening commercial ties.”  

Takalvi added that “to make it sustainable and economically viable, investment will be needed to improve existing tracks, railway ports and freight trains.” 

“The freight train has to pass through difficult mountainous areas of Balochistan to reach the Pak-Iran border. Meanwhile, separatist elements are also active in these areas, thus security issues will also be vital,” he said. “Balochistan and the region as a whole are no stranger to railway lines being blown up. “

“In the long run, building synergies with China’s BRI [Belt and Road Initiative], i.e., CPEC [the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor] would render the revived route much more attractive,” Takalvi said. “China would be interested, as it provides a broader base for China-Iran and China-Turkey cooperation and commerce as well.”