On board Iran’s incredible Unesco-listed train

A railway wonder

As you’ll be aware, there’s a lot going on in Iran right now. Since the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16 2022 in custody, after she was arrested for ‘improperly’ wearing her hijab, significant anti-regime protests have taken place, and met with violent resistance by the authorities. These events speak volumes about the desire for freedom that is felt among the Iranian people, whose country has been cut off as a result of geopolitical tensions between the Islamic Republic, the USA and several other countries.

Today, to pay homage to this struggle (and the incomparable beauty of Iran), we’ve decided to take you on board one of the world’s most spectacular trains: the Trans-Iranian Railway.

Our journey starts in Bandar-e Torkaman, a port city in the north of Iran, located on the banks of the Caspian Sea. The station isn’t massive, but rather a small, faded white building with a turret and big windows. Small groups of travellers, largely families, come and go. Most of them have spent (or are going to spend) time with their family in another city. Several travel in a business capacity. You’re staring into the distance, and someone comes to ask if you’re lost and know where your train is coming in. That’s Iranian hospitality for you.

But the real experience you’re here for is still to come. As the name might give away, the Trans-Iranian Railway travels right across the country from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, via various big urban centres, including capital Tehran. The 1,394-kilometre line, classed as a world heritage site by Unesco since 2021, is perhaps most notable for passing through four different climatic zones – meaning you can expect landscapes as varied as they are stunning. In fact, as The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation website explains, the route for this legendary train passes through two mountain ranges, rivers, deep gorges, high plateaus, ancient forests, splendid plains and deserts. It suffices to look out the window and you can soak up the beauty of the Hyrcanian forests, also listed by Unesco, or Mount Damavand. The latter, the country’s highest summit, is surrounded by hot springs and surrounded by several local legends. For those who are more into their archaeology than nature, we’d recommend stopping off at Qom, a holy city with exceptional religious and cultural heritage. Because of all this geographical diversity, you can imagine that building this railway was no easy feat.

The proof in numbers: according to the same UN source, the trans-Iranian train passes over 174 big bridges, 186 small ones and 224 tunnels (including 11 so-called ‘spiral’ ones), built by a total of 70,000 workers. Built between 1925 and 1939, the project required both huge amounts of intelligence and engineering prowess. The Iranian government at the time collaborated with no less than 43 foreign businesses so as not to give too much power to the various parties involved in this epic project. The entirety of the project was funded by a national tax for the same reasons. After the invasion of Iran by Allied forces in 1941, the train in fact greatly helped the foreign troops. According to Mikiya Koyagi, author of the book Iran in Motion: Mobility, Space, and the Trans-Iranian Railway, told the American magazine National Geographic, the Allies increased the amount of cargo being transported on the line, developed certain aspects of its infrastructure and even imported diesel locomotives to replace the steam ones that had been used beforehand.

While this railway has no doubt boosted the mobility of a lot of Iranian people, it has taken some time for many to warm to it. As Koyagi points out, many were unhappy with the high taxes required to fund its construction and running costs. What’s more, many people were also forcibly moved, without compensation, because their homes lay in the way of the route. It also contributed to the impoverishment of certain cities and villages that were on the commercial routes that had been favoured previously. As time has gone on, however, things have changed and this unique train has found a place in the hearts of Iranians. We just hope it’ll also be able to find a place in the hearts of future visitors – once the country is freer and better integrated in the international community.

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