ECO Train, Pakistan-Iran-Turkey

Umar Farooq
3 min readFeb 28, 2021

There is announcement of re-starting ECO train between Pakistan-Iran-Turkey, initially just for freight.

Similar experiment was conducted in 2009 and it would be wise to ask if the train between these three countries is such a good idea, why didn’t it continue in the first place?

Without going into too many details, here is a quick perspective.

Technical Failures

Distance between two rails on a train track is called gauge. Pakistan uses Broad Gauge, Turkey uses Standard Gauge, Iran uses a mix (Broad Gauge specially on the track that connects to Pakistan) and Standard Gauge elsewhere.

Difference in track gauges requires the containers to be unloaded from a train and loaded onto another, at some point, because the same carriages can’t move from one size of gauge to another. And this operation requires proper cranes, trained staff and efficient management to go smoothly every time.

Low Freight Booking

Current trade between Pakistan-Iran-Turkey takes place primarily via sea routes. This is an established method and the entire supply chain is set to utilize this to maximum. For instance, clearing, freight booking, knowledge about available capacity and custom procedures are well setup with various service providers in the market.

In case of railways, this will take time and while it matures there will be less bookings and we’d have to keep at it to ensure the survival in this duration. Maybe even subsidize it. More on it later in the article.

Inconsistent Delivery Times

If due to track failure a train is delayed while passing through Iran, will the railway operator there be penalized only? Who will ensure end-end delivery timeline is adhered to?

Pakistan Railways has become notorious for being inconsistent in its journey durations and if it can’t manage this within its own borders, being able to coordinate externally definitely won’t work.

Politics

Iran has compulsions as per its ambitions in the region and Pakistan has relationships to maintain with Arabs. And often these are counterproductive. Is there any assurance that politics will not cause this train to be affected?

Businesses would rely on this where profit matters more than political considerations. And they will not put their eggs in this basket as long as there are considerable chances of a few phone calls from friendly countries resulting in discontinuation of this route any moment.

Tariff

How much will you charge the end-user for them to send their goods across through this route? The answer to this require the answer to another question. How much should Pakistan Railways charge to end-user within Pakistan? And we do not have an answer because this Price is set by officials who are not obligated to earn a Profit for the organization to make a living.

Now expand this unknown over three territories and expect the officials, for now only Pakistani, to come up with a Price and then coordinate this with Iranian and Turkish operators.

Incompetence

Has Pakistan Railways increased in competence since 2009 or become worse? There are tough decisions to be made by management when operating assets the size of national railways. Are our officials making those decisions? There are countless examples of brilliant officers having served in Pakistan Railways and a huge majority of those are retired now. The current management is just as bright as one can find in other state-owned enterprises in Pakistan. And by the looks of things, we’re on a decline.

Accidents

An important rule of transport is that goods are to be loaded or un-loaded minimum number of times. Firstly, it reduces cost. Secondly, it diminishes chances of accidents. Considering multiple loading routines on this route we have a higher chance of accidents. This is not a huge factor if the staff is well-trained with strict safety protocols being followed, ‘if’ being the operative word.

Summary

It is a great idea to have trains crossing national boundaries, enabling safe and efficient transport of goods. It is an even better notion to have trains deliver such services within country first. Without ensuring freight trains are a priority within, we won’t be able to run them well outside our boundaries.

Since 2009 we’ve not been able to improve on any of the above metrics hence it should be obvious that re-starting the train is inevitably going to get it re-closed.

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