|Locale||Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey|
|Dates of operation||Under construction (originally planned for 2010, currently 2017)–|
|Length||826 kilometers (61 mi) (new construction)|
The Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK), or Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway (BTAK), is a regional rail link project to directly connect Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The project was originally to be completed by 2010, but was delayed to 2013, 2015, 2016, and following a fifth trilateral meeting in February 2016, the three countries' foreign ministers announced that the railway will finally be completed in 2017.
Passenger trains will feature new sleeping coaches.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project is intended to complete a transport corridor linking Azerbaijan to Turkey (and therefore Central Asia and China to Europe) by rail. (In late 2015, a goods train took only 15 days to travel from South Korea to Istanbul via China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—considerably less time than a journey by sea.) The line is intended to transport an initial annual volume of 6.5 million tonnes, rising to a long-term target of 17 million tonnes.
In 1986, the construction of a 160 kilometers (99 mi) branch railway line from Marabda (on the Tbilisi-Gyumri line, 23 kilometers (14 mi) south of Tbilisi Junction) west to Akhalkalaki was completed. However, this branch fell into disuse at a later stage.
History of the Project
The project of a railroad between Azerbaijan and Turkey through Georgia was first discussed in July 1993, after the Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway, which goes through Armenia, was closed. The new railway link is intended to provide an alternative route to the existing Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway line, which has been out of use since 1993, when Turkey closed its border with Armenia to support Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia following the Nagorno-Karabakh War. A multi-lateral accord to build the link was signed by the three countries in January 2005. Because of a lack of funding at this time, this project was more or less abandoned. However, during the inauguration of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline in May 2005, the Presidents of Azerbaijan, of Georgia and of Turkey evoked once again the possibility of building a railroad between their three countries.
For the construction of the railroad on Georgian territory, Azerbaijan is providing a US$220 million loan to Georgia, repayable in 25 years, with an annual interest rate of 1%. A concessional loan agreement for this financing has already been signed between a Georgian state-owned company Marabda-Karsi Railroad LLC and Azerbaijan. As of September 2007, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan has allocated the first US$50 million installment of this loan. The European Union and the United States declined to assist in the financing or promoting of the line because they saw it as designed to bypass Armenia, supporting instead the reopening of the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railroad, thanks in part to pressure on the US Congress from Armenian lobbies in Washington like ARMENPAC or the Armenia National Committee in America.
In February 2007 in Tbilisi, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed a trilateral agreement to launch the construction of the railroad the same year. On November 21, 2007, the presidents of Azerbaijan - Ilham Aliyev, Georgia - Mikheil Saakashvili, and Turkey - Abdullah Gül inaugurated the construction of the railroad at a groundbreaking ceremony at the Marabda junction south of Tbilisi, and the first rails in Turkey began to be laid in July 2008 from Kars.
The Russian-Georgian-Ossetian conflict (2008 South Ossetia war) and environmental problems delayed the project from an originally projected completion date of 2010, to 2015  and subsequently later still.
In November 2014, Turkey's Transportation Minister, Lütfi Elvan, stated that 83% of the project has been completed. According to estimates, the railway line will be capable of carrying 17 million tons of cargo and about three million passengers by 2030.
On the 30th of January 2015, the first test-train ran along the new (Georgian) stretch of track between Akhalkalaki and Kartsakhi in the presence of the Georgian Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and the Azerbaijani Minister of Transport, Ziya Mammadov. According to Kvirikashvili, 'major construction works on 180 km railway are actually completed and every effort will be made to complete Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway works in late 2015.' In September 2015 it was announced in Georgian media that service would not begin before an unspecified time in 2016.
The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan (Elmar Mammadyarov), Georgia (Mikheil Janelidze) and Turkey (Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu) held a fifth trilateral meeting in Georgia on 19 February 2016, during which they travelled to the new Georgia-Turkey border crossing at Kartsakhi/Çıldır, subsequently hailing the railway project as “historic” and noting its importance for the region in the context of the new Silk Road. A week before the foreign ministers met, a seventh meeting of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars co-ordination council was held in Tbilisi, during which the Turkish and Azerbaijani transport ministers and the Georgian finance minister announced that the railway will be operational in 2017 when work on the Turkish section is completed.
Objectives and political issues
The key objective of the project is to improve economic relations between the three countries and gaining foreign direct investment by connecting Europe and Asia. Some commentators in Armenia have viewed this new route as an attempt by Azerbaijan to bypass and isolate Armenia from regional economic projects. However, the route through Armenia was politically impossible due to the unresolved war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to Samuel Lussac, "[the project] will contribute to further regional cooperation between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey," but it will also, "constitute a new stage in the further marginalization of Armenia within the South Caucasus." The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev in 2005 reportedly declared, "If we succeed with this project, the Armenians will end in complete isolation, which would create an additional problem for their already bleak future."
In total 105 kilometers (65 mi) of new line will be built between Kars and Akhalkalaki, with 76 kilometers (47 mi) within Turkey and 29 kilometers (18 mi) in Georgia. The existing railway line from Akhalkalaki to Marabda and on to Tbilisi and Baku will be modernized.
Its total length will be 826 kilometers (513 mi) and it will be able to transport 1 million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight at the first stage. This capacity will then reach 3 million passengers and over 15 million tons of freight.
Georgia and Azerbaijan both use the broad gauge of 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 27⁄32 in), and the existing section of railway line (Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku) will not be modified. The new tracks, i.e. the Georgian section from Akhalkalaki to the border station at Kartsakhi (Georgian: კარწახი; ) and the new Turkish section from Kartsakhi to Kars, will be built to the standard gauge used by Turkey. The line will therefore feature a break-of-gauge near Akhalkalaki, which would require either variable gauge, bogie exchange or cargo reloading. Passenger cars will be equipped with the DB AG/RAFIL Type V system of adjustable wheelsets to accommodate the change of gauge from 1,520mm to 1,435mm (standard gauge).
In June 2014, Azerbaijan Railways announced that they had signed a SFr 120 million (EUR 115 million) contract with the Swiss firm Stadler Rail AG to supply 3 ten-car variable-gauge sleeper trains, to be delivered between mid-2016 and mid-2017. Each train will have a total of 257 beds, divided into first, second and "first/second" (family compartments) classes. The contract includes an option for a further 70 sleeping cars.
Each train will be made up of:
- 1 first-class car
- 16 compartments all with en-suite toilet and shower
- 6 second-class cars
- 34 beds sharing one toilet and one shower
- 1 "first/second"-class car
- 20 beds, including family compartments
- 1 second-class car
- compartment for reduced mobility passengers, four second-class compartments with 16 beds, and a crew compartment
- 1 dining-car
- seating 28
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