So when will the new Orient Express start taking bookings? Opening a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus on Wednesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, put his country at the heart of a new London to Beijing route. An “iron Silk Road”, according to Turkish officials, is taking shape that will link China through Central Asia and Turkey to Europe. In the process it will open up some of the most poorly connected parts of the world.
Mr Erdogan is right that the transcontinental tunnel – first proposed by Sultan Abdulmecid in 1860 –removes a major choke point in the European-Asian rail network. But those who think of getting on the new Orient Express, served by white gloved stewards on a leisurely journey all the way to China, will have to wait.
The primary purpose of the link is to ease commuter traffic congestion between the European and Asian sides of the great conurbation of Istanbul. And the metro line which uses the tunnel will not be complete until 2016, the formal opening on Wednesday having been planned for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic.
Spare capacity will be used for freight, which is where the tunnel link has international ramifications. Next year a link from Turkey to the old Soviet rail system at Kars, on the border with Georgia, will open, and this should allow 6.5 million tonnes of freight a year to travel from China, Central Asia and the South Caucasus into Europe.
This is not going to change the face of east-west transport. The Trans-Siberian railway, built more than 100 years ago to link Moscow with the Pacific coast, can carry 100m tonnes a year, but is already close to full capacity.
But it is the start of a transformation of trans-Asian railways, with the impetus all coming from China.
Beijing is determined to open up land routes to the West for both economic and security reasons. China imports 60 per cent of its oil and is hungry for raw materials for its factories. Most of these imports come by ship through the Strait of Malacca, which could easily be closed by a hostile power. For all China’s trumpeting of its new found naval prowess, the United States has a 20-year lead in military technology, so Beijing is keen to diversify its import and export routes.
The land route is complex, full of political, technical and security challenges, but these are seen in China as worth pursuing. Rarely does a Chinese leader venture to any of its western neighbours without a promise of money to improve land transport between the Pacific and the Baltic.
During Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan in September he spoke of creating a “Silk Road economic belt”. This neatly combines three goals: diversifying freight routes, spreading economic development from China’s coast to the centre and the unstable western region, and binding its neighbours in a new trading community.
Chongqing, China’s largest municipality with 29 million people, is 1,440km west of the port city of Shanghai. If it has goods to export to Europe, it makes sense to send them westward by land. The process has already started. In August, German Railways pioneered a freight link from Zhengzhou to Hamburg via Russia over 15 days, less than half the sea journey time.
Alongside rail investment comes investment in oil and gas. Chinese oil firms are already major operators in Kazakhstan, which will be one of China’s main suppliers of hydrocarbons.
The technical problems are enormous: the Soviet rail system uses a wider gauge than the standard European one – a technical device designed to make it harder for Germany to invade. Freight containers passing from China to Central Asia thus have to be lifted off one train and placed on another beside it. If they are going on through Turkey they have to cross the Caspian Sea by ship and then, at the Turkish border, transfer again to a standard European gauge train.
In the long run, railway logic suggests that the route should bypass the Caspian Sea by going through Iran – but until that country is released from sanctions and seen as a reliable investment partner, that will never happen.
The “Silk Road economic belt” must inevitably encompass Afghanistan, until 2012 a country without substantial railways but with major mineral resources waiting to be exploited. It is now linked to the Uzbekistan network thanks to a 75km spur from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. A 200km extension of the Iranian rail network to Herat is under way, while more ambitious plans to enable the export of the country’s mineral resources are under consideration.
It is simplistic to think that merely building railways will transform a country that has been at war since the Russian invasion of 1979. The intractable security issues are amply demonstrated by the slow progress of China’s drive to establish an import route though Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.
The port has failed to thrive largely due to unrest in Pakistani Balochistan, which has slowed the pace of road connections. China took over control of the port in June, with the aim of making it an oil terminal from which it could send supplies through Pakistan into Xinjiang, which has long been the scene of ethnic-based unrest.
China has several interests in its railway plans. Near the top of the list of priorities is to bring jobs to the underdeveloped west and thus undercut separatist sentiment. Close behind must be cementing trading alliances with its neighbours not only to ensure energy supplies but also to make sure that they do not offer support to the Muslim Uighurs who have historic and religious ties with Central Asia states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
China’s push to the west is not going to stop soon. So Mr Erdogan is right to be investing in the development of Turkey’s once neglected railways and banging the drum for the Bosphorus route to Europe. One day it may bring a big prize.
On Twitter: @aphilps