There is a fourth possible route to the south from Kashgar, again briefly transiting Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan. This alignment would join the Tajik system and run south across the River Amu Darya to the newly-opened Afghanistan system near Mazar-e-Sherif. Plans are advancing to extend the Afghan system eastwards through to Herat where it will join the now largely complete Iranian connecting line from Torbat, thus providing onward rail access either south to the Persian Gulf or through Turkey. Turkish links with Europe are set to improve with the imminent opening of the Marmaray rail tunnel under the Bosphorus. There are also plans to build a new line circumventing Lake Van, however, this is still a long way off, and a new train ferry service recently entered service.

In addition to aiding Chinese export trade, the driving force for these developments is heavy industrial growth in Urumqi and Kashgar in Western China. Mountainous areas in central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan which has substantial reserves of high quality coal and anthracite, are well placed to supply the raw materials required.

Reducing freight transit times is another factor behind the development of these lines. The Central Asian rail network has the potential to attract traffic away from deep sea container routes from China to the Middle East and Central Europe which suffer from long and arduous journeys; it can take two or three days alone to transit between Western China and the seaboard, which is followed by a journey that rounds the Singapore Peninsula and has to overcome the congested sea lanes through the Red Sea, Suez and Bosphorus, all the while being conscious of Somali pirates. However, crossing borders is a major potential difficulty for railfreight given the number of transit countries on the proposed routes, and will add to the time and cost of transporting goods overland. And despite being a longer journey, the price of seafreight has also fallen dramatically following the financial crisis of 2008-09 meaning that for many industries it remains the most cost-effective means of transporting goods from China to the west.

Sheer cost

The sheer cost of building infrastructure, particularly that capable of penetrating the Kyrgyzstan Mountains, was a previous barrier to detailed planning of the Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan route, while gauge change will be necessary on this line further increasing journey times.

In contrast the Tajik route is largely valley and easier to navigate. At present Tajikistan has only three unconnected lines into Uzbekistan which need integration. A study of potential traffic is taking place for the route, a development in which Iran is showing much interest, while the United States is gauging the potential of an additional supply route. In addition, the project is listed by the Asian Development Bank as a future possibility, while Tajikistan is very keen to link up with neighbouring rail networks as a means to export its raw materials. A journey along the route last year elicited information that completion of the route is a Chinese regional objective, but not yet adopted nationally.

The over-arching potential for this route is that Afghanistan's network will be standard-gauge, enabling it to connect with rail networks to the west. The Chinese system is also standard-gauge, so if the missing links are built to these standards, and some dual gauge is added in Tajikistan from Kurgan Tube to Vahdat, a China - Middle East - Europe standard-gauge corridor can be created - the Holy Grail indeed.

While the Trans-Siberian will remain the most attractive corridor to traffic from China to Europe, intermediate traffic is better suited to this alternative surface route, which has the potential to offer competition to the Trans-Siberian's current stranglehold on all trans-Asian rail movement.