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Pakistan's Rail Corridor to Istanbul: Light at the end of the tunnel?

  Sneha M

The rail corridor is a source of relief for the three countries as it expands connection, strengthens regional economic activity


On 3 January 2022, the first freight train between Istanbul and Islamabad via Tehran reached Ankara via Lahore, Taftan and Zahedan. Pakistan Railways Director (Operations) Imtiaz Ahmad said, “The first train that departed on Dec 21 from Islamabad carrying goods (mainly pink salt) reached Ankara (Turkey) on Monday evening. Before reaching its destination, the goods loaded onto the train were shifted to other bogies (trans-shipment) compatible with the Iranian and Turkish rail/gauge system,” adding, “The train consisted of eight wagons carrying pink salt weighing 150 tonnes.”

On 21 December 2021, the Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad railway (ITI) or ITI freight train was re-inaugurated at Margalla railway station to boost trade between the three countries. On the same note, on 26 December, the ITI freight train departed to Iran loaded with pink salt.

The initiative is part of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), an Asian political and economic intergovernmental organization founded in 1985 Tehran by Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey leaders. According to Pakistan Railways records, the first train from Islamabad to Istanbul was opened on 14 August 2009.

Eight trains have been sent from Pakistan to Turkey so far, the last of which left Lahore on 5 November 2011. Turkey has transported six trains to Pakistan since the service began in 2009, with the most recent arriving on 9 December 2011. Due to various challenges, the ITI train service was later discontinued indefinitely. However, following a nine-year hiatus, the ECO secretariat began making preparations in October 2020 to begin train service on 4 March 2021 of this year. However, it was also postponed due to a variety of reasons.

Response and Relief
At the inauguration, the Pakistan Railway Minister, Azam Khan Swati, termed this train service to be an "important milestone" capable of unifying business communities across the countries. He also highlighted that " with the new opening of trade routes, it will be a great opportunity for importers and exporters." On the other hand, Razak Dawood, Adviser to the PM on Commerce, iterated that the train service would open doors for business and connectivity in the region. Foreign Minister Qureshi praised the ITI freight train's return, saying it would help to improve regional integration and boost economic activity in the region. Turkish Ambassador Mustafa Yurdakul voiced the expectation that the train service would not stop in Istanbul but would continue to Europe, benefiting all regional countries.

Overall, the rail corridor is a source of relief for the three countries and Central Asian countries because it expands connection, strengthens regional economic activity, and saves time and money.

Implications and Concerns
The rail corridor to Istanbul is bringing both new hopes and despair

Recently, Iranian officials slammed Pakistan in 2019 after a suicide bombing in Khash–Zahedan killed 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members and injured 13 others. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari of Iran has asked Pakistan to crack down on the militant group Jaish al-Adl before Tehran retaliates. In February 2019, Bahram Ghasemi, speaking on behalf of Iran's Foreign Ministry, warned that Pakistan's "inability to stop cross-border assaults in Iran" will not be tolerated. Pakistan, on its part, offered Iran assistance in the investigation of the bombing and expressed sympathy for the victims. Further, Pakistan's government has consistently been dismissive of the illegal trade, causing economic losses at home. Nevertheless, both countries have been working on their rapprochement, and the rail corridor advancement is an example.

In November 2021, Iran and Pakistan signed their first barter trade agreement, exchanging Pakistani rice for Iranian LPG, signaling a turning point in the two countries' efforts to overcome the main trade barrier. Apart from the rice barter trade, the two sides agreed to build border markets and cooperate on truck mobility under the Convention on International Transport of Goods (TIR) for Pakistan to access European and Caucasian markets and Iran to access the Chinese market. Additionally, in April, Iran and Pakistan launched their third official border crossing to improve business and trade exchanges while also providing new job prospects for border communities.

The second aspect is that Pakistan and Turkey have forged strategic cooperation amid a changing global order in recent years. Essential components of national power shared by the two countries — strong militaries, key locations, and large populations — will drive defense, diplomatic, and technology collaboration in the years ahead. Therefore, the importance of connectivity with neighboring countries and beyond cannot be overstated, and these countries very well realize it. The reinstatement of the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul (ITI) goods train service is a significant development. Moreover, other ongoing regional connectivity initiatives include the Trans-Afghan Railway project and CASA-1000.

However, the concerns persist. The difficulties in deploying this train could be attributed to two significant factors. For starters, US sanctions against Iran are a problem. As the train travels across Iran, it encounters administrative challenges. Due to these roadblocks, shippers are hesitant to join the programme, which leads to the second challenge: a lack of demand. According to Aasim Siddiqui, chairman of the Pakistan Freight Association, the freight volumes between Turkey and Pakistan are insufficient to continue a regular train operation.

Khalid Hasnain, “First Islamabad-Istanbul train reaches Turkey,” Dawn, 4 January 2022
Pakistan-Iran-Turkey Rail Freight Line Reopens After Ten Years,” Silk Road Briefing, 23 December 2021
Aamir Yasin, “Freight train launched to link Istanbul with Tehran, Islamabad,” Dawn, 22 December 2021
Sana Jamal, “Pakistan- Iran-Turkey launch railway corridor to unlock trade potential,” Gulf News, 21 December 2021


*Note: The note was first published in

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