What do you call a high speed Spanish made train in Uzbekistan running on a Soviet gauge? How about naming it after an ancient city near Samarkand which was occupied from 500 BC to 1220 AD. For a country on the crossroads of history, Afrosiyob seems a logical choice.
Commercial service on the line began in October 2011 with twice weekly service between Tashkent and Samarkand, but within 5 months expanded to daily round trips between the two cities. Today the 344 km route is covered in just two hours in three class service at international standards.
Operating as the Uzbekistan Railways flagship service, Afrosiyob service is by Spanish Taglo trainsets. Delivery of new sets was completed in 2016, as was the high speed rail line extension from Samarkand to Bukhara which now makes the 600km journey from Tashkent possible in just 3 hours 20 minutes. Previously, the route took upwards of seven hours on Soviet era rolling stock. Work is already underway to open the high speed service spanning the entire length of Uzbekistan, from Tashkent to Urgench, reducing travel times on the 1,000km route to just six hours, down from 17 by way of overnight trains.
In our time in Uzbekistan, we have used the Afrosiyob service at least five or six times on trips to Samarkand and Bukhara. The ticket prices are set according to market meaning that even business class tickets can be purchased for about $10. Standard of service is about what you would expect on a European express or intercity train. Comfortable seating and attentive staff make the Afrosiyob the mode of transportation of choice for tour groups and locals who want to avoid flying.
Flights from Tashkent to Samarkand are offered by the Uzbek national flag carrier, Uzbekistan Airways, but there isn’t really much competition here. The train is by far the cheaper and faster option. Despite a flight time on the 260km sector of 55 minutes, the time necessary for check-in, security, wait-time, boarding, flight, deplaning, and arrival formalities, make Afrosiyob the obvious choice. Even the Tashkent Bukhara route has a programed flight time of 1 hour 20 minutes, so the three hours on a roomy high speed train still makes flying seem pointless.
The fact Uzbekistan managed to field international standard high speed rail across long distance sectors and make it work, makes us wonder why it’s so difficult to implement in other parts of the world. Zipping through the countryside by train in 250kph comfort watching the world go by without having to deal with the unfortunate necessities of modern day airline travel has a certain appeal. On Uzbekistan’s flagship Afrosiyob service, it really is quicker by rail.