Construction of a crucial cross-border rail link between Iran and Afghanistan has stalled because of security problems on the border between the two countries.

Several engineers have been kidnapped in the region in recent weeks, deterring local contractors from working on the line, which is intended to run 350 kilometres between Mashhad and the Afghan city of Herat.

Construction of the project began in 2007 but Tehran is struggling to find staff willing to work in Iran’s lawless border region with Afghanistan, where local gangs operate and drug smuggling is rife.

The state-owned rail operator, Islamic Republic of Iran Railways (RAI), which is funding the project itself, is now seeking new contractors willing to continue the work. It is not clear how much of the line has been completed.

“Progress has been slow and has now almost stopped because of security [concerns] along the route by the border,” says one Iranian rail official. “Engineers have been kidnapped and contractors do not want to work there or in Afghanistan.”

This is the latest in a series of setbacks to rail projects planned for the country. In April, it emerged that plans for a $700m rail link between Mashhad and the Gulf port of Chabahar had been shelved because of difficulties in raising funding for the scheme (MEED 7:4:08).

Tehran has also decided to scale back plans for two high-speed rail lines from the capital – one to Mashhad, with another to Esfahan via Qom – again as a result of funding difficulties (MEED 4:1:08).

In early June, however, the RAI announced it would issue tenders for civil works contracts on the Chabahar line.

This has prompted an angry response from local rail consultants, who say studies for the project have not been completed and the route of the line has not even been decided.

“There is no point issuing tenders for the Chabahar rail project,” says the rail official. “It is a purely a political decision because the government wants to expand the port at Chabahar, but there are still disputes over whether the route should cross into Afghanistan or stop at the border.

“The government is still looking for international finance for the project but there is none because of the political problems in Iran. We cannot get funding for rail projects at the moment. Any international funding goes to energy and oil.”

However, connecting Chabahar to a rail network is critical since Tehran has recently announced plans to expand capacity at the port to 6 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) by 2030.

Dubai’s DP World and the Indian Hinduja Group have proposed to jointly build a container terminal with capacity for 500,000 TEUs at the site.

The proposed rail link would provide a maritime export point outside the Strait of Hormuz for landlocked Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, as well as the central Asian republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).