The leaders of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Iran gathered at an obscure Turkmen frontier village Wednesday to inaugurate a new rail route intended to speed up delivery of goods between Europe and Asia.
The new 577-mile rail line between Ozen in western Kazakhstan and the northern Iranian city of Gorgan near the Caspian Sea provides a vital connection within the North-South Corridor project aimed at boosting trade across the Eurasian landmass, Russia's Tass and Kazakhstan's Kazinform news agencies reported.
Goods traveling overland from Europe through Central Asia to Iran's Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas for onward shipment to China can now be delivered in 13 days, down from the 22 days it has taken until now, the Associated Press reported from the inaugural ceremony in the Turkmen border town of Ak-Yayla.
Freight trains previously had to negotiate circuitous rail routes through the poorly served Caspian Sea littoral states to reach Indian Ocean ports serving Asian markets.
Turkmenistan's 440-mile stretch of the new connector was the last to be completed in the project, which was agreed upon by the three nations' presidents in 2007. Construction began two years later.
Delays ensued after the Turkmenistan government fired Iranian contractor Pars Energy for missing construction deadlines that had envisioned a 2012 opening of the new route, the International Railway Journal reported.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the new rail link as an opportunity to quickly triple the volume of freight among the three countries to 10 million tons a year and to 20 million tons by 2020, the Kazinform news agency reported.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the opening of the rail link marked "a historic day" because it will streamline trade from the Mediterranean through the Caspian Sea and onward to India, Pakistan and China.
Turkmenistan's elusive leader, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, predicted that the boost to the trans-Eurasian rail net would enhance prosperity for the whole region, according to Eurasianet.
Turkmenistan continues to be plagued by a legacy of corruption, though; it ranked 169th in a 175-country index issued Tuesday by Transparency International. Iran and Kazakhstan got only marginally better marks, respectively placing 136th and 126th in the world in open and fair business practices.
All three nations have sizable energy exports and Turkmenistan is one of the biggest suppliers of cotton and textiles to Asian garment industries.
Almost half of Turkmenistan's working-age population is engaged in agriculture but little of its farm output is exported, according to the CIA World Factbook. The remote, desert country was renowned during the Soviet era for its melons and chal -- the latter a fermented camel's milk beverage popular throughout Central Asia but too perishable to stand up to even the expedited shipment time frame now available.