Afghan railway: First train runs on new line in north
A train has run for the first time on Afghanistan's only major railway, between the Uzbek border and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The seven-carriage train pulled into a new station in the city after travelling the 75-km (47-mile) route without any cargo.
The line was completed last year at a cost of $165 million (£105m).
The authorities hope to open up new trade routes and link Afghanistan to its neighbours' rail networks.
The new line could also become a key supply route for Nato forces in Afghanistan and help take military equipment out when the international troops withdraw, starting in 2012.
The US has been shifting its supply lines into the north and away from the volatile route from Pakistan.
The first journey on Wednesday was intended to test the track and signals, before the formal opening of the project at which President Hamid Karzai is expected to attend.
"This is a matter of pride for us and a very important issue for Afghanistan," said Deputy Public Works Minister Noor Gul Mangal, who was there to watch the train arrive in Mazar-e-Sharif.
He said the government planned to build another line into Turkmenistan, to the north-west.Bottleneck
The new line to Mazar-e-Sharif runs from the border town of Hairatan, which is currently a major bottleneck for goods entering Afghanistan.
Supplies have to be taken off Uzbek trains and loaded on to trucks to continue their journey.
The railway should enable goods to be taken straight to Mazar-e-Sharif, avoiding the queues and significantly increasing the volume of goods that can be transported.
Afghanistan's neighbours, including Pakistan and Uzbekistan, have good railway networks built by their former rulers, Britain and Russia.
However, Afghanistan has never had a functioning rail system.
Railway projects were started several times in the 19th and 20th centuries, by British and then Soviet authorities, only to be abandoned for political reasons.
Afghanistan has long been the missing link between the rail networks of China, India and the Middle East.
The new railway is part of the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (Carec) project, under which it is intended that these networks will be joined up by 2,000km (1,300miles) of new track.
The plan is funded by the Asian Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but so far it is a very long way from being completed.