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Kyrgyzstan: How Suitable Is the North-South Alternative Highway?

Kyrgyzstan is now building on credit an expensive mountain road that would need major repairs already in five years. Was there an alternative to the North-South highway?


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The construction of an alternative North-South highway is well underway in Kyrgyzstan. The road is supposed to address the country’s various communication problems. Several foreign banks and institutions have allocated their funds (mainly loans) for road construction; Chinese Eximbank is a major lender. This article aims to analyze the need for the present highway and its possible alternative – the railway.

Background to the issue

The complex mountain geography of Kyrgyzstan initially necessitates the issue of transport communication between the country’s regions. All states that existed on modern Kyrgyzstan’s territory had faced the issue. Without going far into history, I propose to consider the Soviet period.

In Soviet times, transport communications and the delivery of goods to the south of the republic proceed through railway.

For the carriage of passengers, there was a flight Jalal-Abad – Tashkent – Frunze. Goods to the south of the republic were delivered by railway from the Ferghana Valley via branches to Tash-Kumyr, Kok Dzhangak (via Jalal-Abad), Osh, Kyzyl-Kiya and Suluktu. The same goes for the export of manufactured products.

The country’s residents had also used nearby stations on the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, since each republic was part of a large country and, accordingly, its economic system. So, there was no need as such to ensure the connectedness of the regions without crossing the republic’s administrative boundaries.

Everything has changed since independence. The Bishkek-Osh road became the key driving route – the only linking the north and south of the country, as Uzbekistan began tightening the rules for driving through its territory before completely closing the border for travel. Railway communication through Uzbekistan was also halted in 1993.

The country, therefore, had lost its railway connection and, at the same time, was forced to hastily instigate the renovation of old and the construction of new roads. Faced with the problem, the Government of Kyrgyzstan decided to reconstruct the Bishkek-Osh road, which lasted from 1996 to 2007. Still today, the phase IV of this project – the reconstruction of the Madaniyat – Jalal-Abad section – is underway.

From 1996 to 2016, a total of 2 billion 521 million US dollars investment had been injected on roads. Of these, $206 million are grants, $ 213 million are the country’s own funds. The remaining $ 2 billion 102 million[1] are loans.

Yet, none of these construction works and loans is hardly practicable since road transport of goods comes out many times more expensive than the carriage of goods by rail. This is especially true in the case of Kyrgyzstan. For instance, take the transportation of fuel and lubricants. According to Kyrgyz Temir Zholu, in 2017 the delivery of one ton of fuel from the Omsk railway station to the Kara-Balta station cost 2,436.5 soms, while road transport from the Kara-Balta station to Osh already estimates at 2,860 soms[2].

Besides, even if there is an expensive communication line like a highway, the problem of transport communication between Kyrgyzstan’s north and south remains unaddressed. The country’s two regions are linked by one two-lane Bishkek-Osh road (one lane in each direction). This is problematic both in terms of the type of traffic (automobile) and the peculiarity of the road itself.

Equally important is the fact that in the Shamaldy-Say area (south of Tash-Kumyr), the highway comes close to the border in several sections, which is very vulnerable from the national security point of view.

It is also worth mentioning that the Bishkek-Osh road is very challenging and creates constraints being a mountain road.

First, weather conditions are not among favorable – harsh winter in the mountains, black ice, avalanches, rockfalls. All these lead to frequent accidents, congestion on the roads, and even to the road closures.

Second, a mountain two-lane road is very menacing in terms of the difficulty level for drivers. The latter attempt to drive about 700 km in the shortest possible time, which increases the crash risk. Besides, there are frequent fatal head-on crashes attributable to the narrowness of the road.

Alternative North-South Highway

The country’s leadership, well aware of the problems, from the 1990s, hatched the idea of ​​a road that will country the country’s north and south parts and improve access to the interior of the country. Although the emphasis back then was put on the railway[3].

But along with the railway discussion, the Government had made a project proposal on alternative North-South highway. One of the first to initiate the project was the country’s former president Almazbek Atambayev in 2011 in Parliament[4]. The road construction was scheduled for 2013 and to be completed in five years. 

During his working trip to the Jalal-Abad region in 2017, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov had inspected the Kazarman-Jalal-Abad section of the North-South alternative highway. Photo: gov.kg

A total of 850 million US dollars were provided for the road construction, with a loan of $700 million allocated by the Export-Import Bank of China and the remaining funds attracted from the Islamic Development Bank and Asian Development Bank[5].

The road along the Balykchy – Kochkor – Chaek – Aral – Kazarman – Jalal-Abad route is estimated to be 430-kilometers-long[6]. Of these, 200 kilometers are in the sections requiring the construction of a completely new road. Thus, one kilometer of the road, on average, will cost nearly 2 million US dollars.

One kilometer of the road, on average, will cost nearly 2 million US dollars.

Envisaged in the project is also a tunnel through the Ferghana Range between Jalal-Abad and Kazarman, which in its characteristics exceeds the parameters of the Too-Ashuu tunnel[7][8].

According to the Government’s plan, the road should solve the following problems: a) be an alternative transport corridor between the south and the north of the country, bypassing border territories; b) contribute to the development of the country’s interior, inter alia by improving access to Sandyk aluminum and Kara-Kechinsky coal deposits; c) provide a safer way bypassing the Too-Ashuu and Ala-Bel passes.

The blue line marks the Bishkek-Osh active highway, whereas the red line marks the North-South alternative highway.

As of October 2019, 75% of the work had been completed on the first phase of the road (the first phase is 150 km), 79% of the work – on the second phase (the second phase is 99 km). The third phase completion is scheduled for 2022 (the third phase is 140 km).[9]

Criticism of the road

We will not consider the scandals around the road construction. Criticism will concern only the very concept of building a highway.

I would like to bring several important financial considerations:

  • A kilometer of road construction, as mentioned above, will cost about $ 2 million if you simply divide the total cost by the length of the road; (the cost depends on the landscape – editor’s note)
  • Various institutions had provided a loan for the construction. According to loan agreements, Kyrgyzstan will repay them in 20 to 32 years to Eximbank and ADB, respectively[10];
  • According to the law “On Roads”, the warranty period should be at least five years for new roads and at least three years for rehabilitated ones[11].

That is, after five years, Kyrgyzstan might need to commence major road repairs, which can cost from 700 thousand to 1.5 million US dollars for each road kilometer.[12]

 

To pay the loan (s), the country has to choose between one or more of the following options: take money from the budget; make the road toll; introduce a special tax; use a certain part of the taxes on fuel, and lubricants or vehicles.

In neighboring Tajikistan, the rehabilitated Dushanbe-Khujand road (about 300-km-long) was made toll.

The fare for a passenger car on the Dushanbe – Khujand route is $12, whereas the fare for a truck is already $ 58[13]. The road is managed by the private company IRS that is occasionally criticized, including by the authorities, too. The IRS provides services for the highway, too. Will Kyrgyzstan head down a similar path? Will Kyrgyz carriers pay 5000 soms (65 US dollars) or even more for one carriage?

Thus, Kyrgyzstan has a road built on credit, which must be maintained and overhauled in five years. Especially when you consider that the road will execute the transport of coal and other goods above the permitted weight.

Kyrgyzstan might spend from 300 to 645 million dollars in five years to repair the North-South highway. That is, for 32 years (the maximum loan period), Kyrgyzstan could repair the road 10 times (the first major repairs in five years, and in three years the following ones). The country could spend from 3 to 6.45 billion US dollars for road repairs only while repaying the loan.

It might not be that dangerous as the Bishkek-Osh road, but it doesn’t change the other road disadvantages: the high cost of transportation, which especially true for shipping of minerals; rapid deterioration; expensive passenger transport, especially compared to railways.

Was there an alternative?

In the 1990s, the Government enthusiastically discussed the railway construction projects. Though back then the railway was supposed to start before the coal deposit in Karakeche (Dzhumgalsky district)[14] and pass further south. Supporters substantiated it by the fact that the reserves of Karakeche coal (one of the deposits in the Kavak basin) must be used for the needs of the Bishkek thermal power plant. They had also explained prospects for developing the entire Kavak coal basin, including Karakeche (with total reserves of 1.5 billion tons)[15].

That is, the railway project discussions had been held for a long time.

As early as 2012, Kyrgyz politician Omurbek Babanov, a prime minister back then, denounced the construction of the North-South railway, but along the Balykchy – Kara-Keche – Ugut-Arpa route (possibly along the route of the North-South highway under construction).

It was announced that this could cost 2-2.5 billion[16] dollars[17][18] to the parliament. At the same time, it did not and does not negate connecting roads in Ugut or Kazarman to the China – Kyrgyzstan – Uzbekistan railway[19].

See also: The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway Project: How Much Does Kyrgyzstan Stand to Benefit?

In 2015, the speaker of the Parliament Asylbek Jeenbekov announced that an active construction phase would begin shortly[20]. The Parliament even began to utterly discuss the possible construction of the Chui-Fergana railway[21]. But then discussions had been ceased and efforts have been directed to the North-South highway.

Meanwhile, in 2015, it was publicly reported that China – Kyrgyzstan – Uzbekistan railway could go along the Torugart – At-Bashi – Kazarman – Jalal-Abad route, it would be as long as the North-South road — 430 km, and the cost would be analogous to what Kyrgyzstan could have spent on the North-South road repairs in 32 years – $ 6.5 billion.

Alternative Railways for the North-South Route

The useful life is at least 10 years[22] for the railway’s upper structure and 200 years for the road foundations[23]. The service life of railways is, therefore, longer than that of highways.

The road inspections and repairs are ongoing and strictly regulated. We should also point out that monitoring compliance with rail loading standards is much easier than monitoring the weight of each truck, whereas the railway will last much longer than a highway.

We can certainly build a North-South railway parallel to the highway and connect it to the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway.[24]

How much would Kyrgyzstan stand to benefit from building a railway?

  • Cheap freight

As noted above, the cost of shipping a ton of fuel from Bishkek to Osh exceeds the cost of shipping the same amount from Omsk to Bishkek. Some Kyrgyz entrepreneurs claim that transporting one kilogram of goods from Bishkek to Osh costs an average of three soms, while this might cost one som if transported by rail. The main cargoes are coal and other minerals, which will be delivered to the densely populated areas of the south and north from Karakeche and other deposits.

It also has the potential to reduce the distance required for trucking. The country’s main regions will be at up to a 200-kilometers-distance from the railway.

  • Cheap and safe passenger carriage

An average speed of 50-60 km an hour is quite a normal speed for mountain railways.

And if we to implement regular 10-12 hours long passenger trains from Bishkek to Jalal-Abad, we could have night passenger trains, for example,  which are regaining their former popularity in Europe[25][26].

Passengers could be offered a full range starting from two-seater compartments up to a seat in the train. They might be charged 500 soms for a ticket (2-3 times cheaper than a taxi) with discounts introduced for students. After all, the freight would be the main road income. That is, the carriage of passengers would be cheaper and safer.

  • Fundraising for loan repayment

Unlike a highway, where to collect funds you need to install posts, and therefore, decide on additional expenses for their arrangement and staff maintenance, the railway does not require that.

You also need to consider the negative political aspects of introducing fares. This generates another reason for discontent.

As for railway transport, each movement of goods and passengers is recorded and paid. Thus, the fund return mechanism is far clearer and enables the calculation of financial models for payback.

  • More facilitative road maintenance

The railway might reduce the weight regulations at least twice, if not more, for the North-South, Bishkek-Osh, Bishkek-Torugart (to Kochkor) roads from the current maximum of 44 tons[27], thereby extending the lifespan of these roads. This will allow us to spend less on repairs and forget the conventional habit of taking a loan for road repairs.

Do we need the highway now?

Following the warming of relations with Uzbekistan, we might wonder, whether building a railway is practicable since we might as well deliver goods through Uzbekistan. In fact, it might be more profitable to deliver certain cargo to the south of Kyrgyzstan by rail in Uzbekistan.

However, we need a railway: a) to ensure passenger traffic comparable in time with intercity taxis and along the route passing exclusively through Kyrgyzstan’s territory; b) to transport minerals, primarily coal from the Kavak basin and aluminum from the Sandyk deposit; c) to provide an alternative for road transport of goods from North to South and vice versa.

Further uncontrolled credit for the construction and repair of roads might cause budget overloads with debt obligations and will be challenging both for funding of profitable and high-return projects, and to the general stagnation of the economy.

Conclusion

In summary, I would like to note that the Kyrgyz Republic was on the right track at the beginning of its independence, repairing current roads and planning the construction of the North-South railway. According to the plan, the railway was to become the main means of transporting goods between the north and the south of the country.

But in 2011, the Parliament appealed for the construction of the highway, which will address only a part of the issues, becoming an alternative safer road that stimulates the development of regions. It won’t, however, make a qualitative change in the safety and cost of cargo and passenger transport, but instead will jeopardize the country’s financial stability.

If you look before 2045-2050, the construction of the railway is very much justified even financially. The railway can address the safety and cost of freight and passenger transport by providing cheap, safe, and comfortable carriage.

Also, this road will be electrified in the future, enabling the reliance on the country’s own energy sources and abandoning imported petroleum products.

Even with the North-South highway under construction, we need a railway, which might be even easier to construct if there is a parallel highway.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] “Alternative north-south highway: A new scandal? ” 24.kg news agency https : //24.kg / ekonomika / 89067_alternativnaya _doroga _sever _yug _nas _jdet _novyiy _skandal /

[2] “Entrepreneurs put their bets on the railway.” Radio Azattyk https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_uzbekistan_ecomony_transit/28982108.html

[3] “The Road to the Coming Century” Evening Bishkek  https://vecherka.kg/1999/10/18/11.htm

[4] https://kabarlar.org/info/5428-alternativnaya-avtomobilnaya-doroga-soedinyayuschaya-sever-i-yug-kyrgyzstan.html

[5] https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_politics_north_south_road/29439139.html

[6] https://kg.akipress.org/news:1551358

[7]https://ru.sputnik.kg/photo/20160327/1023661276.html

[8]  https://kg.akipress.org/news:1586518

[9] “Construction of the North-South road in the first and second phase is completed by 75% and 79%.” Economist.kg https://economist.kg/2019/10/14/stroitelstvo-dorogi-sever-jug-po-pervoj-i-vtoroj-faze-zaversheny-na-75-i-79/

[10] ]https://www.akchabar.kg/ru/news/soglashenie-s-abr-po-finansirovaniyu-stroitelstva-dorogi-sever-yug-za-951-mln-odobreno-komitetom-zhogorku-kenesha/

[11] Law on Roads, Website of the Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic. http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/80

[12] “How much does a kilometer of scandalous roads in Kyrgyzstan cost.” IA 24 kg. https://24.kg/ekonomika/51618_skolko_stoit_kilometr_skandalnyih_dorog_kyirgyizstana/

[13] “Pay and roll: who needs toll roads in Tajikistan.” Satellite Tajikistan. https://tj.sputniknews.ru/analytics/20190219/1028134355/tajikistan-platnye-dorogi.html

[14] “The Road to the Coming Century.” Evening Bishkek. https://vecherka.kg/1999/10/18/11.htm

[15] Ibid

[16] “Kyrgyz-Chinese negotiations on the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway.” Researchgate.Net. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316323115_KIRGIZSKO-KITAJSKIE_PEREGOVORY_O_STROITELSTVE_ZELEZNOJ_DOROGI_KITAJ-KIRGIZIA-UZBEKISTAN/link/5ad19b2e0f799999fload9fe4fload9

[17] “They have been waiting for three years: Jeenbekov had promised to launch the North-South Railway project in 2015. Cactus Media. https://kaktus.media/doc/379375_obeshannogo_tri_goda_jdyt:_jeenbekov_obeshal_zapystit_proekt_jd_dorogi_sever_ug_v_2015_m.html

[18] “The North-South Railway may run parallel to the highway under construction.” Kloop.KG https://kloop.kg/blog/2015/01/26/zheleznaya-doroga-sever-yug-mozhet-projti-parallelno-stroyashhejsya-avtotrasse/

[19] Ibid

[20] “They have been waiting for three years: Jeenbekov had promised to launch the North-South Railway project in 2015. Cactus Media. https://kaktus.media/doc/379375_obeshannogo_tri_goda_jdyt:_jeenbekov_obeshal_zapystit_proekt_jd_dorogi_sever_ug_v_2015_m.html

[21]  “Kubat Rakhimov: the Chui-Fergana railway will become an alternative to the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan project.” 24.kg news agency https://24.kg/archive/ru/economics/122657-kubat-raximov-zheleznaya-doroga-chuj-ndash.html/

[22] “Code of Practice. The Railway ” Taekspert. http://docs.cntd.ru/document/1200124323

[23] “Code of Practice. Railways gauge 1520 mm. TechExpert. http://docs.cntd.ru/document/1200095541

[24] “The North-South Railway may run parallel to the highway under construction.” Kloop.KG https://kloop.kg/blog/2015/01/26/zheleznaya-doroga-sever-yug-mozhet-projti-parallelno-stroyashhejsya-avtotrasse/

[25]  “No need for airplanes: the 10 best night trains in Europe and why you need to ride them. Delfi.  https://rus.delfi.lv/turgid/turnews/i-samolety-ne-nuzhny-10-luchshih-nochnyh-poezdov-v-evrope-i-zachem-na-nih-nado-ezdit.d?id= 51879897 & all = true

[26] “Night trains, big cities. Renaissance sleeping compounds in Europe. Vgudok. https://vgudok.com/lenta/nochnye-poezda-bolshie-goroda-renessans-spalnyh-sostavov-v-evrope-vzglyad-vgudokcom

[27] Decree of the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic “On Amendments and Additions to the Decree “ On approval of the Procedure for passing vehicles on public roads of the Kyrgyz Republic and levying fees for weighing and measuring the total mass, axial loads, dimensions and other linear parameters of vehicles means and the Procedure for admission and collection of tolls for vehicles with special and indivisible cargo on public roads of the Kyrgyz Republic. ” Website of the Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic.  http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/97827

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