Kabul: Operators ran the first train down Afghanistan's first major railroad on Wednesday, clearing the way for a long-awaited service from the northern border that should speed up the US military's crucial supply flow and become a hub for future trade.

A cargoless train chugged into a newly built station in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif today after a 75-kilometre trial run from the border with Uzbekistan, said Deputy Public Works Minister Noor Gul Mangal, who was on hand for the arrival.

The new rail line is the first stage of an ambitious plan to link landlocked Afghanistan to its neighbors' extensive railways for the first time, eventually opening up new trade routes for goods travelling between Europe and Asia.

Afghanistan has never had a functional rail network, though many projects have been begun and later abandoned, victims of manoeuvres of the 19th century Great Game rivalry between Russia and Britain, and then political bickering in the early 20th century.

Soviet occupiers abandoned a few rail projects in the 1980s, and later years of bitter civil war made such construction impossible.

So the line from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif marks a milestone in a violence-wracked country eager for good news on the horizon.

It also could be a key route for the US troop withdrawal beginning next year and, eventually, a gateway for Afghan exports that would travel its neighbors, said Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

"It's actually a big deal. It's very significant both practically and symbolically," Starr said.

In the short term, service will help release a bottleneck at Hairatan dry port that is now holding up goods, including fuel and other supplies for American troops, while they are loaded off of trains and onto trucks for a hazardous journey over Afghanistan's northern mountain roads.

(Agencies)