The Iron Silk Road is taking shape.
In January this year, a Chinese freight train chugged into a British terminal in east London’s Barking for the first time. It had been on the tracks for two weeks, travelling some 7,500 miles from the Chinese port city of Yiwu. Part of China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, it was a demonstration of overland connectivity that exists along the erstwhile Silk Route, which Beijing wants to harness to increase trade with the rest of Asia and Europe.
Now, Indian Railways is trying to patch together a group of disparate railway networks across south and west Asia to send a container train 6,000 kilometres from Dhaka to Istanbul, the Indian Express newspaper has reported.
The route, known as the Trans-Asian Railway southern corridor (pdf), was identified by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in the 1990s, with the intention of connecting Thailand to Turkey. However, due to incomplete railway links in Myanmar, the current plan is to send a container westward from Dhaka.
Railway officials from five countries—Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey—are slated to meet in New Delhi later this month to finetune the plan.
“The demonstration-run will happen very soon in 2017 and we will sort out all the issues with the countries concerned,” Mohammad Jamshed, a member of the railway board, which governs Indian railways, told the Indian Express. “This will also demonstrate to the world that there can be a real, commercial trans-Asian container corridor of this magnitude in the rail sector.”
There are some political and logistical roadblocks, however. Pakistan, for instance, isn’t keen on containers from India crossing over into its railway network. Also, the railway networks of India and Bangladesh are connected by one weak bridge over the Padma river, according to the Indian Express, which means only lightweight cargo can be transported. So, in all likelihood, the first bit of cargo on this stretch of the Iron Silk Route will comprise cotton garments.