LIKE its neighbours in the Gulf States, rail features prominently in Iran's transport plans, and a host of major projects is already underway with 3000km of new lines under construction and a further 13,000km under study. There is also a programme of investment in the existing network, which includes 3000km of track-doubling, 2900km of electrification, and resignalling of 2800 route-km, together with renewal and expansion of the locomotive and rolling stock fleets.

Taleb-ZareIranian Islamic Republic Railways (RAI) expects rail's share of the land freight market to increase from 11% to 30% by 2025 and to meet this target, volumes will need to increase from 33 million tonnes to 140 million tonnes over the next 12 years. RAI is also seeking to almost double passenger traffic from 28 million passengers a year to 52 million within the same timescale.

In order to support the expansion of the network and accommodate the forecast increase in traffic, RAI says it will require more than 1100 new locomotives, 1300 coaches, and at least 45,000 new wagons. In an interview with IRJ at the International Union of Railways (UIC) Regional Assembly for the Middle East Conference in Amman last November, Mr Taleb Zare, acting president and board member of RAI told IRJ: "Most of the wagons and coaches we require will be produced domestically, but we expect to import a lot of the locomotives from Europe and China."

However, domestic suppliers are also building capacity to meet demand. Last year Iranian manufacturer Mapna opened a new locomotive production facility, which is building ER24PC IranRunner locomotives under a technology transfer agreement signed in 2008 with Siemens (a supplier which has since exited the Iranian market). The factory can produce up to 150 locomotives per year.

Zare says the $US 4bn project to upgrade and electrify the 926km Tehran - Mashhad line, which began last February, is progressing well. The project will raise the maximum line speed from 160km/h to 200km/h and is expected to halve the current journey time to around six hours. RAI has appointed a domestic contractor to carry out the upgrade through a 40-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract. Iranian manufacturer Wagon Pars was awarded a contract to build 300 new coaches for the line last year, and Zare says negotiations are underway with potential suppliers for the contract to supply electric locomotives. The first phase of the project, which includes the delivery of at least half the new train fleet, is due to be completed in 2015.

The electrification and modernisation of the 620km line between Bafq and Bandar Abbas, Iran's largest port, is also due to be tendered as a BOT project.

Much of the new line construction currently taking place is focused on new links with neighbouring states, which are being built with the aim of fostering transit traffic through Iran on both the north-south and east-west axes.

Construction of the 205km Qazvin - Rasht - Anzali line, and the 167km line from Rasht to the Azerbaijani frontier at Astara is now more than 70% complete, and Zare says the Qazvin - Rasht section will open this year. However, construction has yet to start on the short cross-border section between Astara and the town of the same name in Azerbaijan.

To the east of the Caspian Sea, the 82km line from Gorgan to the Turkmen border is nearing completion, and this will form part a new route linking Iran with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. According to the Economic Cooperation Organisation, an intergovernmental organisation representing 10 countries in the region, the much longer section through Turkmenistan is also more than 50% complete.

In the west, RAI hopes to complete the 566km line from Arak to Kermanshah and the Iraqi border near Qasr-e-Shirin by the end of next year. Eventually this will be met by a 180km line from Baghdad. Iran has also made progress with links to southern Iraq, and has completed the line from Ahvak to Khorramshahr close to the border. This leaves just an 80km gap to reach Basra, although this will require construction of a bridge across the River Tigris. Iran is also constructing a 114km line between the port of Bandar-e-Emam Khomeyni and Khorramshahr which will halve the rail distance between the two towns. With the construction of a southern link to Iraq, this could also provide a useful connection between the Iranian port and Basra.

Zare told the conference in Amman that civil works had been completed on the line between Sangan and the Afghan border, and construction continues on the remainder of the 191km line to Harat.

"With the completion of these projects we will meet our commitment to the UIC to bridge missing links in the regional rail network," says Zare. "We hope our neighbours will join us by completing their projects and unlocking the benefits of these huge investments."

Other key projects currently under construction include a 205km direct line between Miyaneh and Tabriz on the Tehran - Jolfa line, bypassing the sinuous section through Maragheh; a 424km high-speed line between Qom and Esfahan; a 506km line from Esfahan to Shiraz; and a 570km line from Zahedan to Iranshahr and the port of Chabahar.