Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) is a project to create an integrated freight railway network across Europe and Asia. The TAR is a project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
The project was initiated in the 1950s, with the objective of providing a continuous 8,750 miles (14,080 km) rail link between Singapore and Istanbul, Turkey, with possible further connections to Europe and Africa. At the time shipping and air travel were not as well developed, and the project promised to significantly reduce shipping times and costs between Europe and Asia. Progress in developing the TAR was hindered by political and economic obstacles throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. By the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and normalisation of relations between some countries improved the prospects for creating a rail network across the Asian continent.
The TAR was seen as a way to accommodate the huge increases in international trade between Eurasian nations and facilitate the increased movements of goods between countries. It was also seen as a way to improve the economies and accessibility of landlocked countries like Laos, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the Central Asian republics. Much of the railway network already exists as part of the Eurasian Land Bridge, although some significant gaps remain. A big challenge is the differences in rail gauge across Eurasia. Four different major rail gauges (which measures the distance between rails) exist across the continent: most of Europe, as well as Turkey, Iran, China, and the Koreas use the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) gauge, known as Standard gauge; Russia, and the former Soviet republics use a 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 27⁄32 in) gauge; Finland uses a 1,524 mm (5 ft) gauge; the railways in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka use the 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) gauge, known as Indian gauge; and most of Southeast Asia has 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 3⁄8 in) metre gauge. For the most part the TAR would not change national gauges; mechanized facilities would be built to move shipping containers from train to train at the breaks of gauge.
By 2001, four corridors had been studied as part of the plan:
- The Northern Corridor will link Europe and the Pacific, via Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and the Koreas, with breaks of gauge at the Polish-Belarusian border (1,435 mm or 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in to 1,520 mm or 4 ft 11 27⁄32 in), the Kazakhstan-Chinese border and the Mongolian-Chinese border (both 1,520 mm to 1,435 mm). The 5,750 miles (9,250 km) Trans-Siberian Railway covers much of this route and currently carries large amounts of freight from East-Asia to Moscow and on to the rest of Europe. Due to political problems with North Korea, freight from South Korea must currently be shipped by sea to the port of Vladivostok to access the route.
- The Southern Corridor will go from Europe to Southeast Asia, connecting Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand, with links to China’s Yunnan Province and, via Malaysia, to Singapore. Gaps exist between India and Myanmar, between Myanmar and Thailand, between Thailand and Cambodia, between Cambodia and Vietnam and between Thailand and Yunnan. The section in eastern Iran between Bam and Zahedan has been completed. Breaks of gauge occur, or will occur, at the Iran-Pakistan border (1,435 mm or 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in to 1,676 mm or 5 ft 6 in), the India-Myanmar border (1,676 mm to 1,000 mm or 3 ft 3 3⁄8 in), and to China (1,000 mm to 1,435 mm).
- A Southeast Asian network; this primarily consists of the Kunming–Singapore Railway.
- The North-South Corridor will link Northern Europe to the Persian Gulf. The main route starts in Helsinki, Finland, and continues through Russia to the Caspian Sea, where it splits into three routes: a western route through Azerbaijan, Armenia, and western Iran; a central route across the Caspian Sea to Iran via rail ferry; and an eastern route through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to eastern Iran. The routes converge in the Iranian capital of Tehran and continue to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.