The battlefields of Ukraine are more than 1,000 kilometers away as the crow flies, and yet Münir Kuskapan feels the tremors of war every day.

The manager of the train station in the eastern Turkish provincial metropolis of Erzurum is not angry about it.

On the contrary: ever since part of the northern rail corridor from China to Europe was canceled due to the war, more trains are making their way through Turkey than ever before.

On average, locomotives with dozens of container wagons rattled through his station every day eight times a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, says Kuskapan.

Every train a little tremor.

Andreas Mihm

Business correspondent for Austria, Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey based in Vienna.

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"We're seeing more freight," says the station manager, who has turned gray after 36 years of service.

It all started last year, during the pandemic, when ships were unreliable and freight forwarders switched to more expensive but faster container transport via the “iron Silk Road”.

"It's going very well this year."

What Kuskapan describes on a small scale, Enver Iskurt confirms on a large scale.

"For the international players, the importance of the middle corridor has grown again," says the deputy transport minister in Ankara.

He likes that, since Turkey is investing a lot of money to become a logistics hub between Asia and Europe - on water, on land and in the air.

Elaborate route

Transports via Russia are currently declining “because of the geopolitical situation”, confirms Clemens Först, spokesman for the Rail Cargo Group of the Austrian Federal Railways ( ÖBB ).

In fact, the Chinese state railway company China Railway, which has been spoiled by double-digit growth rates on the European route, reported an increase of just over 2 percent for the first half of 2022.

That was 7473 trains and 720,000 containers, not only to Duisburg.

Now the competition is getting even bigger: ÖBB manager Först believes that the middle corridor “will gain a great deal of importance in the next few years”.

That's why he founded a company in Shanghai that is supposed to let ÖBB container trains run south past Russia to Europe.

Truck forwarders are also increasingly using this route.

Because of the "increasing importance of the middle corridor as an alternative route to the northern transport connections via Russia", the Austrian forwarding group Gebrüder Weiss is expanding its location in Tbilisi, Georgia.

He's not alone in this.

The route leads either by ferry across the Black Sea or Turkey to Georgia, from there via Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan and from there to the workshops in China.

It is longer, more complex and more expensive than the northern route, but the rail transports still reach Europe faster than by cargo ship with a duration of 12 to 18 days.

Container terminal in a barren landscape

If the containers don't take the ferry from Batumi in Georgia to the already overcrowded Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta, they will pass through Münir Kuskapan's train station in Erzurum and possibly stop a few kilometers to the west.

There, at an altitude of 2000 meters, the Turkish state railway TCDD has concreted a brand new container terminal in the barren landscape.

This is where freight trains are put together and decisions are made as to which goods might go to Shanghai, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Mersin or to the EU via Istanbul.

"You can export goods all over the world from here," says Erzurum's governor Okay Memis.

His problem is that here, in a structurally weak region 300 kilometers away from Armenia and Iran, only a few companies want to produce - despite numerous aids, including exemptions from taxes and social costs.

The logistics center now gives a little hope.

The inscriptions on the containers refer to senders from Turkey, Azerbaijan and China.

First Chinese freight train three years ago

China plays an important role for Turkey's railways, which Beijing sees as a kind of ironclad continuation of the Silk Road.

"Through the integration of Turkey, China has an additional strategic option in terms of the connectivity of its transport infrastructure to Europe," says economics expert Jens Bastian from the Science and Politics Foundation, who has been dealing with China's "New Silk Road" for years.