New Iran-Iraq railway to move pilgrims from road to rail
After agreeing on building a new cross-border rail link in 2021, Iranian and Iraqi officials formally opened construction of the line by laying a foundation stone last weekend. The Iran-Iraq railway is expected to be constructed in 1,5 years.
The foundation stone for the Basra – Shalamcheh railway project was laid on Saturday 2 September at the Shalamcheh border crossing in Basra Governorate, marking the start of this vital project that is linking Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a speech, Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Sudani emphasised the significance of the railway connection project for transporting travelers and pilgrims to the holy shrines from Iran and Central Asian countries, says the Iraqi ministry in a statement. The ceremony was attended by Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber. The project had undergone several years of negotiations and was approved by both country in 2021.
“There is a very large number of Iranian visitors who go to the holy shrines in Iraq annually, and their number is estimated between 3-4 million people”, said Advisor to the Prime Minister for Transport Affairs, Nasser Al-Assadi, to the Iraqi News Agency (INA). “Only 700,000 visitors pass through the Shalamcheh crossing, and this large number puts pressure on the roads. Sometimes, it congestions and traffic accidents occur, so the railways are safer for visitors as it will solve traffic congestion problems and reduce accidents.”
The Iraqi minister also highlighted its role in bolstering Iraq’s economic infrastructure and promoting growth. Although the railway line will be for passengers only, the Iraqi ministry also states the railway should provide opportunities for development after the completion of the Grand Faw Port, a port under construction on the coast of Iraq at the Persian Gulf set up to become the largest port in the Middle East.
“We look forward to an infrastructure that will facilitate the entry process for visitors in the coming years as their numbers grow, and reduce the traffic accidents and congestion that the roads witness.” “Railways are still considered the most economical, cheapest and safest means of transportation. No economy in the world has positive indicators of growth, unless railways are part of its supporting structure”.
The total length of the rail project with Iran is 36 kilometres and will have 4 stations, according to ministry statements to the INA. The line will be for passenger transportation purposes only. The plan is to extend these connections to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in the future, according to the Iraqy ministry. The estimated construction time of the railway link was earlier said to be 18 months, at the signing of an MoU between the Iraqi Republic Railways Company and Iranian Railways Company in May this year.
Relations between the two Arabic countries have improved over the past decades since the war started by Iraq ended in 1988. Both are majority Shiite Muslim countries with large Kurdish populations, and they share roughly 1600 kilometre border that sees an estimated ten million crossings annually. Many of them are Iranian pilgrims visiting shrines in Karbala and Najaf that are among the most revered in Shiite Islam. The countries also have strong trade ties; Iraq was Iran’s second-biggest import partner in 2021, after China, according to the US-based independent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
“The relationship between Iraq and Iran is strategic, and we are working on the border industrial city project and the joint transportation routes between the two countries”, said Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
Iraq is also working on a new railway connection to Turkey, starting from the same city of Basra in the south. It will connect the new Grand Faw port to the Turkish port of Mersin on the Mediterranean Sea. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the project has the potential to become “the new ‘Silk Road’ of our region”.