China wants to build a high-speed rail link to a newly open Iran

The Tehran Express.
The Tehran Express.
Image: Reuters/China Stringer Network
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China Railway, the state-owned rail-building behemoth, has proposed a high-speed rail link that will carry both passengers and cargo between China and Iran, according to the state-controlled China Daily.

The proposed route, put forward last week at a meeting of the China Civil Engineering Society, would take advantage of the easing of global sanctions against Iran, while also bring Iran closer in to China’s widening economic orbit.

China’s economic influence has been expanding along with president Xi Jinping’s efforts to install a large-scale infrastructure network that connects economies as far apart as Southeast Asia and Western Europe. This is essentially aimed at increasing cross-border trade but, handily, the network puts China at the center of the newly imagined trade map.

The most recently proposed route would begin in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang province, and end in Tehran, the Iranian capital some 3,200 km (2,000 miles) away. Along the way it would stop in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan:

The route of the proposed China-Iran railway.
Image: China Daily/Li Yi

Central Asia already has rail infrastructure that can move goods between China and the region, but a major problem is that Central Asian countries use a different width of track than China and most of the rest of the world. That means goods can be transported across borders, but that trains must wait for days on certain crossings to change their gauges.

China’s plan is to build a single rail line that relies on a uniform gauge along the whole route. That would cut down the time needed to transport goods and increase the route’s competitiveness against ocean freight alternatives. The trains themselves would run at up to 300 km per hour (185 miles per hour) for passenger trains and 120 km/h for freight trains.

China is not the only country making grand plans for Iran’s soon-to-be liberated economy. Aerospace giant Boeing has discussed its intention to open an office in Tehran once sanctions are lifted, and one unnamed German company has already agreed to build solar power powers in Iran, according to Bloomberg. Oil majors have long been talking with Iran’s oil ministry; it’s conceivable that China’s proposed rail link could also be put to use exporting Iranian oil.

But while the government in Beijing has a strong reputation for getting things done at home, it has a less-than-stellar record of completion when it comes to international projects. Recently, local governments have scrapped a hydro-power project in Myanmar and a high-speed rail link in Mexico, to name just two.

One analyst told the China Daily that a project such as the rail route to Tehran could suffer the same fate as those above, due to geopolitics out of China’s control. But while projects in other nations are nice-to-haves, routes that connect to China directly, such as the proposed line to Iran, are generally seen as key strategic goals for Beijing.

That’s partly because the other side of China’s great rail plans involve expanding the network through Southeast Asia, to countries as far as Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia. Another even more fantastic idea is a rail line from Beijing to the continental US. Should such train routes prove successful, China will have placed itself right at the center of a very significant network.