Does the Future Ever Come? An Infrastructure and Its Multiple Delays

Railways make space. They pierce holes into mountains, they tie territories into knots...they bridge, they hook, they circulate, they are (in) motion. Upon thinking about infrastructures, this circulation is the first thing that comes to mind: the volumes and lengths of the earth suddenly connected by the movement of a train on its tracks. Yet, rail infrastructure is also making and unmaking time. A promise of speed accompanies most contemporary infrastructural projects – for the seamless circulation of goods, data and people. But other timescapes intersect with – and at times contradict – such promise. It is with these temporalities that this essay is concerned. Starting from our interdisciplinary research about the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, we will outline the temporal dislocations that mark this ever unfinished project. These temporalities are material: they emerge from the specific physical properties of infrastructures and, in turn, they have concrete effects on the forms of life and build environments that surrounds them.

The construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in Samtske Javakheti, in South-West Georgia, has taken almost three decades. Starting in 1993 in the aftermath of the first Nagorno- Karabakh conflict, the line has had its latest inauguration in 2017 and its currently only partially operating. Amidst this seemingly perpetual delay, the promise of prosperity this project waged has long expired and local populations have learned to treat the railway as an alien feature of their landscape. The locals’ multiple claims for employment or compensation have been diluted by years of waiting. However, observing the current murky operations in and around this line, it appears that different forms of delay are currently mined for profit and become sources of power for those in charge of managing this project.

In this text we will outline the profitable nature of delay. We will do this by following four intersecting timescapes that we observed in and around the railway: first we will show how the accumulation of capital rests on the creation of a specific form on infrastructural future, the control of which grants great profits and the ability to re-organise space. Secondly, we will outline how technical delays, rather than an obstacle to smooth flows, can become a sought-after condition. Thirdly, we will map how unexpected delays are turned into opportunities for profit-making at the expenses of logistics workers; and, finally, we will reflect on the power that workers have to appropriate delay through acts of sabotage. What emerges from our account is a picture of global logistics as a collection of the multiple and often frictional timescapes. These can be observed by paying close attention to a single infrastructure. By placing time at its core, our analysis aims to interrogate the permanent failure of logistics’ future promises, exposing the forces at play in the maintenance of impermanence and unfinishedness as a condition for large infrastructural projects in Georgia and beyond. The essay will include images from our upcoming film “Iron Silk Road” (2022).

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