A rail connection from Afghanistan's biggest northern city to the Uzbekistan border offers a chance to reestablish the war-torn nation as a regional trade hub.
Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan - Abdul Ahad recalls the time the first train rolled into Naibabad Station in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, 306 kilometers (km) northwest of Kabul. A crowd of children - joined by curious adults - were standing by to get a glimpse of the 12-car train that had arrived from the Uzbekistan border on 21 December 2011.
"[The arrival of the first train] was a great astonishment for everyone. It was the first time that they had seen a train in their country." - Abdul Ahad, railway dispatcher in Mazar-e-Sharif
"It was a great astonishment for everyone ... because it was the first time that they had seen a train in their country," says Ahad, a railway dispatcher.
For Ahad, 38, the novelty of watching trains pull into a station in Afghanistan has not worn off; nor has the novelty of receiving a reasonable paycheck for the first time in his life. In a country where 53% of the population live on less than $2 a day, he has seen his income triple to AF15,000 ($310) per month since taking his current job, making it far easier to support his family of eight.
Jan Mohammad also works at Naibabad Station, unloading freight carriages in the searing near-40⁰C heat. It is hard work by anyone's standards, but for the grey-bearded 53-year-old, the arrival of trains from Hairatan, 75-km distant on the Uzbekistan border, represents a stable income and security for his future.
"I used to work as a daily wage construction worker, earning AF150-AF200 ($3-$4) a day, but there were days I didn't get hired," he says. "Now the railway is operating, I've been hired, and I have a regular salary of AF12,000-AF14,000 ($250-$310) per month paid by the government."
For Jan Mohammad, that means that all five of his children - three sons and two daughters - are receiving an education. His oldest son has graduated from secondary school and is now attending an institute of higher education.
"My income has made their education possible," Jan says.
Relieving a bottleneck to trade
Jan and his family are among the many citizens of Mazar-e-Sharif - Afghanistan's fourth largest city - and elsewhere in the northern province of Balkh, whose lives have been transformed by the 75-km Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway, which was established with a $165 million grant from ADB's concessionary Asian Development Fund (ADF).
Until the opening of the railway in December 2011, the Hairatan border post was a gateway to almost half of Afghanistan's road imports. But, as trade and humanitarian relief expanded, the road link increasingly became a bottleneck. The new railway line has quadrupled transport capacity - and it is boosting regional trade.
According to the Transport Strategy and Action Plan under the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program (CAREC), the Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif Railway Project connects Afghanistan to Uzbekistan's expansive rail network, and future links are planned to Herat, 346 km east of Kabul, and to Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
"Once ... [the] railway is fully established and extended to other provinces of Afghanistan and to Afghanistan's neighboring countries, it will not only cause an economic revolution in Afghanistan, but also will have a tremendous impact on the evolution and growth of the regional economy." - Anwar-ul-haq Ahady, Minister of Commerce, Government of Afghanistan
"Once ... [the] railway is fully established and extended to other provinces of Afghanistan and to Afghanistan's neighboring countries, it will not only cause an economic revolution in Afghanistan, but also will have a tremendous impact on the evolution and growth of the regional economy," says the Government of Afghanistan's minister of commerce, Anwar-ul-haq Ahady
Deputy public works minister Ahmad Shah Waheed, agrees, pointing out that connecting the country to a regional rail network would bring about "great commercial and economic change."
Providing incomes, facilitating business
Sharif, a 45-year-old father of four, works as a freight forwarder at Naibabad Station. Previously, he made his living with a wheelbarrow in Mazar-e-Sharif, barely making AF150 ($3) a day. Today he receives around AF15,000 ($340) a month.
"In the past, I couldn't afford to enroll my daughters at school because I didn't have a regular job," Sharif says. "Now they can go to school, and fuel and other essentials are cheaper than before."
Meanwhile, railway dispatcher Ahad says that freight carriages arriving from the border have increased to 35-40 carriages. It is anticipated that once the railway is extended, the number will increase again to 100-150.
For an entrepreneur like 58-year-old Hameedullah, who lives in Sheberghan, 80 km west of Mazar-e-Sharif, that means significant cost savings. Hameedullah imports flour from Uzbekistan. Since the railway became operational, he says he now saves $500-$650 in shipment fees for every 20 tons he imports - and his consignments arrive more promptly.
Cost savings of this kind, he points out, benefit everyone because they are passed onto consumers in the form of lower prices.
Hameedullah calls the Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway one of the most successful projects in Afghanistan over the past 10 years. He looks forward to the day that the new railway connects Afghanistan with the rest of Central Asia, providing a strong revenue source for government and tens of thousands of jobs for Afghans.
Meanwhile, Naibabad Station is a hive of activity, as hundreds of laborers like Jan Mohammad unload newly arrived freight trains in a convivial atmosphere of shared effort.
They have jobs and steady incomes, but beyond that they have the promise of a future - and their home of northern Balkh Province is no longer reliant on goods transported through southern Afghanistan from Pakistan. In times past, heavy snows often blocked the 3,878-meter Salang Pass between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, cutting these railway workers off from supplies. Those days, they say, are over forever.