Prof. Dr. Ralf Roth
The dream of a transcontinental railway connection between Europe and Asia dates back to the beginning of the railway age when many memoranda sketched a golden future of journeys and exchange of goods between both continents and of easy ac-cess to Asian markets. But for decades such projects, often characterised as “utopian dreams”, remained unfulfilled. It was not until the 1880s, and also at the beginning of the 20th century, that the Ottoman and Russian Empires invested heavily in big infrastructure projects of this kind.
Seeking to shake off stagnation, the Ottoman Empire initially considered railways an economic and strategic tool that would help it become a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. However, in order to build railway lines the Empire depended on European capital and therefore became part of the complex and difficult interests of different imperialistic powers. Next, the Ottoman Empireʼs dissolution and the emer-gence of new states in the aftermath of World War One divided the railway network that had actually been built (over 8,000 kilometres, across the Empire) into separate entities with limited efficiency. Several decades later, the new geo-political reality after World War Two, as well as the Cold War, boosted Turkey’s role as a hub between Europe and Asia, but priority was given to road construction. New opportunities for the expansion of rail infrastructure arose at the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s, when the number of those promoting the establishment of new railway corridors between Europe and Asia increased significantly. Recent achievements of Turkey ‒ its investments in high-speed lines or the Marmaray line and Avrasya rail tunnel under the Bosphorus (official slogan: “an unbroken journey by rail from London to Beijing”) fit in this picture.
The role Turkey played during the 19th and 20th centuries deserves a wider research perspective and raises a set of specific questions: Which railway projects besides the famous Baghdad Railway were accomplished and for what purpose? How did the system of traffic and transport corridors between Europe and Asia endure the clash of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Arab successor states? Did railways continue to act as links between Europe and the Middle East, and did they support economic integration between the regions affected, or was their role purely local? Other topics may be considered as well: How did railways enact or modify the traditional role and image of Turkey as a staging post between Europe and Asia? Can observations be made about contributions by railways to the modernisation of societies or the integration of territories? What do old railway stations and the presence of railways in villages and in museums tell us about the railways’ past? How did railways in the Middle (and Far) East affect European imaginations about travel to Asia, as mirrored, for example, in literature about the Orient Express in former days or in Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar in modern times?
The conference will also examine the past, presence, and future of alternative inter-national corridors to the Far East. One of the most important ones is of course the Trans-Siberian Railway, built by Russia in the 1890s. But contrary to original inten-tions, this line did only in limited ways serve as a link between two continents. Used mainly for internal purposes for many decades, the line was not opened to transit business until the 1980s. The main question remains: Why have all efforts to modernise and open the Transsib met with only limited success up to the present, and what will be its future? Its inefficiency was the reason why at the end of the 20th century new alternatives were planned and proposed, such as the ECO corridor, TAR, TRACECA, or Chinaʼs initiative to restore the former Silk Road. These more recent developments will be an important part of the conference. Although we would like to include aspects of earlier projects, in the context of a long-lasting memory of the Silk Road, the following questions will be central: Do these projected links between Europe and the Far East have a chance to be realised? How will the projects be funded and which countries will be involved? What about harsh political confrontations between countries likely to be involved, and escalations potentially leading to armed conflicts and even wars? Are there ways to surmount the technical problems of different track gauges being used in many of the existing railway networks alongside the projected corridors? What will be the time frame, and last but not least, are these corridors likely to compete with existing routes across Russia or with traditional road or maritime routes? It is in this broad context that the conference will address role of all the countries concerned by these visions of a future con-tinental transport system and especially the role of present-day Turkey as one of the prominent transit countries, as well as its potential to become a major player in a future intercontinental transport system and an important hub between Europe and the Middle and Far East.
Please, send in proposals of max. 1 page length and a short CV.
Up to 300 Euros will be available to each contributor towards travel and lodging expenses.