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The Trans-Iranian Railway was a major railway building project started in 1927 and finished in 1939, under the direction of the Persian monarch, Reza Shah, and entirely with indigenous capital. It links the capital Tehran with the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. The railway connects Tehran to Shahi and Bandar Shah in the north, Semnan to Mashed in the east, Zanjan to Tabriz in the West, and To Ahwaz and Abadan in the south of Iran. [1] During the land reforms implemented by the Muhammad Reza Shah in 1963 as part of the "White Revolution" the Trans-Iranian railway was extended to link Tehran to Mashed, Tabriz, and Isfahan. [2]



The Russian Scheme: A Trans-Iranian Railway

The concept for the Trans-Iranian railway was nothing new. The idea of a railway connecting Russia and India was proposed by several private Russian promoters in 1889, 1900, and 1905. However, the Russian government declined such proposals, fearing that it would jeopardize Russia’s geographically enabled commercial dominance in Iran as well as complicate relations with the British. As of 1889, Russia and the Shah agreed that no railways could be built in Iran without the mutual consensus of the Russians. Yet by 1910, the agreement was vetoed during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. Fears that Russian interests were no longer primary, alongside the surfacing of anti-Russian political forces in the country, and the emergence of the German threat, made it more important than ever for the country to protect its commercial interests in Iran by constructing a railway. [3]

In order for the railway to be built, the problem of gathering sufficient capital to fund the project was discussed. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was one of several factors leaving Russia on a tight budget, preventing Russia from providing the funds. [4] The British were solicited as well, but the request could not be granted, pushing back initiation of the railway’s construction further. N.A. Khomyakov, president of the Duma, and I.A. Zveginstov, supporters of the Anglo-Russian Entente, promoted a private initiative for a railway connecting India and Europe, to counteract the economic threat Germany posed to the region. Germany’s influence over the region was enabled by the Baghdad Railway, which connected Germany and the Ottoman Empire (which are the modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq), causing Germany to begin plans for connecting the railway to Tehran to increase its commercial enterprise. Despite opposition from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Finance, there was also a great deal of support for the project. [5]

A Trans-Iranian Railway Consortium was formed by December of 1910, consisting of twelve major Russian banks. Nine of these banks came to an agreement with major French banks in 1911, resulting in the crucial financial support needed to fund the railway. However, the final step needed to initiate the project was the support of the British, who wanted to restore financial stability in Iran but did not wish to be involved in the Trans-Iranian Railway Consortium through the proposed four to six million pound loan, proposed by Alexander Izvolsky, Imperial Foreign Minister between 1906 to 1910, and Sergey Sazonov, Foreign Minister from 1910 to 1916. Sazonov continued to urge for the loan, believing it to be the solution to prevent Persia from bankruptcy. Lord Curzon, British Viceroy of Indian, rejected the loan, suspicious that the Russians had an acquisitive eye on Britain’s precious Indian colony, provoking stark protest from Sazonov against the accusation. Finally, in 1912, the Russian, French, and British financiers formed a Sociétés d'Etudes for the Trans-Iranian railway. [6]

When Arthur von Gwinner, Chief Manager of Deutsche Bank and Baghdad Railway, announced plans to build a section of the railway connecting Baghdad to Khanaqin by 1916, the Russians moved fast to secure British support and French investments in the Sociétés d'Etudes. [7] The Russians were primarily concerned with the construction of the northern section of the line, extending from Astara to Tehran, while the British were more concerned with the southern section, since they already dominated in the southern region and the Persian Gulf. [8]

Meanwhile, the Balkan Wars in the Ottoman Empire (1912-1913) created an unstable situation in the country, again putting off the initiation of the application. Such instability caused investors in the Sociétés d'Etudes to hesitate in investing in a bankrupt Iran. Sazonov suggested that appointing a strong Iranian leader would aid the financial aspect of the railway project. Sa’d Dawla, former minister under former Muhammad Ali Shah, agreed to work with the two powers to use a grant from the Sociétés d'Etudes, and thus proceed with the construction of the Trans-Iranina Railway without the agreement of the newly formed parliament. However, Sir Edward Grey, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, refused to force the Iranians to accept Sa’d Dawla as Prime Minister, because of his aversion to the Constitutional movement in Iran. [9]

The outcome of the Balkan Wars caused Russian and Britain to accept the probability of war between the Central Powers in the near future, suggesting the necessity of strong Anglo-Russian relations. Sazonov grew frustrated with Britain’s inability to compromise on a route incorporating India, and threatened to proceed with the northern route. Fearing the implications of the impending war, Grey at last found it in Britain’s best interest to concede at last, and agreed to initiate application of the railway under the Balmoral conditions. At this point in time, Britain already had further consolidated its control over the Persian Gulf. [10]

By June of 1914, surveys for the Enzeli-Tehran section had begun, and by 1915 the results of the Astara-Tehran part of the railway were completed and published. Still, progress on the railway was slow. However, a few days after the outbreak of WWI, Russia repudiated its obligation to build the Tehran-Khanaqin line under the Potsdam Agreement. [11]


From 1927 an international syndicate called Ulen and Company undertook the line's construction. American and German companies led the syndicate, but the parts of the project were contracted out to British, French, Swiss, Czech, Italian, and Belgian companies as well. [12] In April 1933 Iran transferred the contract to the Danish firm Kampsax, which sub-let the project in 43 separate subsections to companies from the USA, Iran and 10 European countries. The contract required Kampsax to complete the line by May 1939. Kampsax completed the project under-budget and ahead of schedule, with it being formally opened throughout on 26 August 1938.

The first lines passed though formidable mountains. Long stretches have gradients of up to 1 in 36 [13] and hill climbing techniques such as railway spirals. The line is 866 miles (1,394 km) long, has about 230 tunnels and 4100 bridges and its highest point is at Arak, 7,270 feet (2,220 m) above sea level. [14] However, Kampsax' contractors laid relatively lightweight rails, ranging from 67 to 75 lbs per yard, that restricted the axle loads that the line could carry. [15]

Engineering and geological challenges

Bridge on the Trans-Iranian Railway between Khoy and the border with Turkey.

Various geological problems were encountered, requiring abandonment of some tunnels and realignment of the route through different terrain:

  • A tunnel through a salt dome was abandoned because the disrupted water table would erode away the salt.
  • A tunnel started through apparently solid rock was abandoned after it encountered powdery gypsum that filled the excavation as quickly as it was dug out.
  • A tunnel through pumice could not be blasted and could not be dug as the picks and shovels became stuck.
  • A tunnel encountered a large "void" or cavern in the mountain that required a bridge within the tunnel.
  • Poor fresh water supplies made mixing of long-lasting mortar and concrete problematic.
  • Large bridges such as the Veresk Bridge were necessary to cross the Alborz mountains.

The Three Golden Lines spiral is on the Mazandaran branch in the Sewatcow County of Mazanderan. The line ascends or descends in a short distance by passing three times in the same area at different heights. Trains descend towards Sari or ascend in the opposite direction by going through the Dowgal twin tunnels.


Germany supplied 65 steam locomotives for the opening of the line in 1938. [16] 24 were 2-8-0 Consolidations: 24 from Krupp forming class 41.11, 16 from Henschel und Sohn forming class 41.35 and nine from Maschinenfabrik Esslingen forming class 41.51. The other 16 were 2-10-0 Decapods from Henschel forming class 51.01. [17]

Post WWI

After the Substantial interruption of WWI, the project for constructing a Railway across Iran was initiated by Reza Shah Pahlavi as part of numerous reforms contributing to the drastic modernization of Iran that occurred over the decades between WWI and WWII. Although technically independent, Iran was still a financially devastated and weak country. [18] Yet the decade of the thirties brought the emergence of an economic market, a drastic increase in modern industries, a rise in exports, and an increase in agricultural output. [19]

While it may seem logical to attribute the reduction in transportation prices to the Trans-Iranian Railway, in reality it contributed minimally. Initially, British and Russian observers considered the implantation of railroads as the ultimate solution to the immense transportation problems Iran faced due to sparsely settled population, the lack of rivers, high mountains, and inhospitable desert regions of the country. Many Americans and British opposed the Trans-Iranian Railway, suggesting more efficient and less expensive modes of transportation, such as the U.S. Army’s Motor Transport Service, which hauled about a fourth of the volume hauled by the railroad to the Soviet border. Some British critics, including General Percy Sykes, opposed the railway because it ran north to south, rather than from west to east. The west to east route was preferred because it would allow the British direct access to their military bases in India and Mesopotamia, and at the same time, avoiding the threat of commercial loss of profit to Russia and any foreign rival. There were also Iranians opposed to the building of the railway as well, believing that the money could instead be much more effectively used on roads. [20] However, if a cabinet minister was caught criticizing the extensive tax burden the railway produced, he could be placed in prison on counts of being a British collaborator, decidedly attempting to keep Iran backwards for his own financial and strategic goals. [21]

Although much opposition to the railway was politically and financially motivated, the railway was an expensive tax-burden, costing Iran 2,195,180,700 rials through 1938-1939. [22] The majority of capital used to fund the railway was provided through taxes on goods such as sugar and tea, produced in plants set up by the industries ministry, as part of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reform movement. [23]

The British and Russians initially stated their reason for invading Iran was the Iranian government’s failure to rid the country of Germans, who supposedly were planning an eventual coup d’etat. [24] Yet there were other reasons for the invasion, and the Trans-Iranian Railways key location as part of the so-called “Persian Corridor” was one of the primary reasons for the British and Russian invasion of Iran in WWII. Despite Reza Shah’s attempts to remain neutral in WWII, the allies decided it would be most effective to remove Reza Shah from the throne, using his young son, [25], instead to assist in their use of the Trans-Iranian Railway to transport oil to Britain, and supplies to the Soviet Union. [26]

British & Soviet operation 1941-42

A USATC ALCO RSD-1 hauling a freight train on the Trans-Iranian Railway

In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In August 1941 Soviet, British and British Indian forces invaded Iran to protect their oil supply in Iran and to [27] secure the Persian Corridor supply route from the Persian Gulf to the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. In September 1941 the Allies took over operation of the Trans-Iranian Railway: British and Empire Royal Engineers (RE) commanded by Brigadier Godfrey D. Rhodes operating the Southern Division between Tehran and the port of Bandar Shahpur on the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Army operating the Northern Division between Tehran and the port of Bandar Shah on the Caspian Sea. [28]

The RE expanded freight capacity by building new railway yards at Bandar Shahpur, Ahvaz and Andimeshk and a junction at Ahvaz for a new line to Khorramshahr on the Shatt al-Arab. In order to increase the line's locomotive fleet the RE built a yard at Abadan to transfer locomotives from merchant ships to barges to take them up the River Karun and a derrick on a jetty on the Karun at Ahwaz to unload them from the barges onto the railway. [29] When the British first took over the southern part in 1941, the railway was only able to move one freight train per day. The railroad hauled a total volume of 978 tons a day in the first quarter of 1942. Yet by September 1943, they were able to move 5,400 tons per day, due to the import of new locomotives, wagons, and more skilled individuals. [30]

The Southern Division locomotive depot at Ahvaz had two German 2-10-0s, seven German 2-8-0s, two class 41.01 2-8-0s built by Beyer, Peacock & Co. in 1934, two class 80.14 0-10-0s from an Austrian locomotive builder and seven smaller locomotives. The RE found that all except the 2-10-0s were in poor condition, as was some of the freight rolling stock. In December dozens of LMS 2-8-0 steam locomotives and 840 20 ton freight wagons started to arrive from Britain. [31] 27 coal-burning LMS 2-8-0s, designated class 41.100 in the Iranian State Railways numbering system, were in service by February 1942. Once enough LMS 2-8-0s were in service some of the German locomotives were released to increase the fleet on the Northern Division that the Soviets were operating. From February until August 1942 96 oil-burning LMS 2-8-0s, designated class 41.150, entered service on the Southern Division and by December 1942 another 19 class 41.100 coal-burners had joined them. [32] In the same year Davenport Locomotive Works supplied 24 diesel-mechanical 0-4-0 switchers, designated class 20.01, Hughes, p. 111 that Iran had ordered before the Allied invasion. [33]

US & Soviet operation 1942-45

In December 1942 the US Army Corps of Transportation (USATC) replaced the British and Empire force operating the Southern Division. [34] In 165 miles (266 km) the line has 144 tunnels, in which smoke and oil fumes created harsh working conditions for steam locomotive crews. A limited water supply throughout the route and the hot climate of the southern plains formed further difficulties for steam locomotive operation. [35] The USATC therefore considered diesel-electric locomotives more suitable and requisitioned every ALCO RSD-1 1,000 horsepower Co-Co locomotive that was then operating on a US railroad or under construction. [36] These totalled only 57 locomotives so initially they were used to operate only the southern part of the Southern Division between Bandar Shahpur and Andimeshk. [37]

For traffic between Andimeshk and Tehran the USATC brought 91 S200 Class steam locomotives, designated class 42.400 in the Iranian State Railways numbering system. The USATC also introduced another 3,000 freight cars. [38] In April 1943 [39] another 18 ALCO RSD-1's entered service, [40] enabling the USATC to return some LMS 2-8-0s to the British Middle East Command [41] and extend diesel operation northwards, reaching Qom by September 1943 and regularly serving Tehran by May 1944. [42] The USATC further increased freight traffic so that in 1944 it averaged 6,489 tons per day.[43]

"Aid to Russia" traffic ceased by May 1945 and in June the USATC withdrew its RSD-1's [44] and returned control to the British authorities. Shortly afterwards the British restored the line to Iranian State Railways. [45] Iranian State Railways is now Islamic Republic of Iran Railways.

See Also


  1. ^ Wright, p. 367
  2. ^ Abrahamian, p. 133
  3. ^ Spring, pp. 60-61
  4. ^ Spring, p. 61
  5. ^ Spring pp. 63-64
  6. ^ Spring pp. 64-65
  7. ^ Spring pp. 71-72
  8. ^ Spring pp. 74-75
  9. ^ Spring pp. 73-74
  10. ^ Spring p. 78, 80
  11. ^ Spring, p. 81
  12. ^ Abrahamian, p.77
  13. ^ Hughes, p. 101
  14. ^ Tourret, 1976, p.4
  15. ^ Tourret, 1977, p. 86
  16. ^ Hughes, p. 11
  17. ^ Hughes, p. 107
  18. ^ Abrahamian, pp.72-73
  19. ^ Clawson, pp. 235-236
  20. ^ Clawson, pp. 241-243
  21. ^ Abrahamian, p. 77
  22. ^ Clawson, p. 243
  23. ^ Abrahamian p. 77
  24. ^ Wright, p. 237
  25. ^ Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi
  26. ^ Abrahamian, p. 97
  27. ^ Abrahamian, p. 97
  28. ^ Hughes, p. 105
  29. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 4
  30. ^ Clawson, p. 241
  31. ^ Tourret, 1976, p.4
  32. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 31
  33. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 4
  34. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 5
  35. ^ Tourret, 1977, p. 86
  36. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 5
  37. ^ Tourret, 1977, p. 86
  38. ^ Tourret, 1977, p. 86
  39. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 5
  40. ^ Hughes, p. 107
  41. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 4
  42. ^ Tourret, 1977, p. 87
  43. ^ Hughes, p. 105
  44. ^ Tourret, 1977, p. 87
  45. ^ Tourret, 1976, p. 31


  • Abrahmian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
  • Clawson, Patrick. "Knitting Iran Together: The Land Transport Revolution, 1920-1940." Iranian Studies 4th ser. 26.3 (1993): 235-50.
  • Hughes, Hugh (1981). Middle East Railways. Harrow: Continental Railway Circle. pp. 101–113. ISBN 0-9503469-7-7. 
  • Spring, D. W. "The Trans-Persian Railway Project and Anglo-Russian Relations, 1909-14." The Slavonic and East European Review 54.1 (1976): 60-82.
  • Tourret, R. (1977). United States Army Transportation Corps Locomotives. Abingdon: Tourret Publishing. ISBN 0-905878-01-9. 
  • Wright, Edwin M. "Iran as a Gateway to Russia." Foreign Affairs 20.2 (1942): 367-371


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