The Silk Road is active again: Thousands of trains now run the route

Many centuries ago, the routes of the ‘Silk Road’ used camels and whatnot for covering the thousands of kilometres between east and west on the Eurasian landmass. In more recent times, when Chinese planners were thinking about the reincarnation of the Silk Road – what is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – they took into consideration a number of factors: trains, even slower ones, are faster than ships; the US navy likes to bully others on the high seas; Central Asia, Russia and Europe will become more and more keen on Chinese products as the latter move to high quality production. One of the key solutions was actually a relatively old one: trains.

I am a great lover of trains, taking them whenever possible. And China is now the world leader in train innovation, technology and implementation. But the development of long distance cargo trains on the Eurasian landmass has largely gone under the radar. From a modest beginning back in 2011, when the first cargo train left Chongqing in China for Duisburg in Germany, it was the beginning of a monumental shift. Back then, there were perhaps a couple of routes trains could follow. Now there are many indeed and they keep increasing exponentially.

Every few days in the Chinese newspapers (for example, here and here), I read of yet another service that has opened, so much so that now there are now 65 routes between 48 cities in China and 40 in Europe. For example, in 2108 alone, 6300 trains with cargo made the journey to Europe, an incease of 70 percent from the previous year.

More detail in this recent article from Xinhua News, the largest and most reliable news service in the world:

URUMQI, April 9 (Xinhua) — The freight train service linking Chinese cities with Europe are breathing new life into the ancient Silk Road with its rapidly expanding network.

In May 2011, a rail route was opened between Chongqing and Duisburg in Germany, marking the start of the China-Europe cargo train service.

Boosted by the Belt and Road construction, the international train service has been expanding fast over the past eight years.

A total of 48 Chinese cities have launched 65 freight train routes, reaching 14 countries and more than 40 cities in Europe in 2018. Over 13,000 trips have been conducted by the China-Europe trains as of March.

Nan Jun, deputy general manager of the Xinjiang Xintie International Logistics Company, operator of Urumqi China-Europe train logistics center, has been a witness to the development of the train service, as 70 percent of the China-Europe trains exit or enter China through Xinjiang.

According to Nan, when the logistics center was opened in May 2016, only four international lines were available, with trains operating once per week. Now there are 21 international lines, with at least three trains operating daily.

International trains starting from Urumqi can reach destinations in Kazakstan in 48 hours, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in 72 hours, Russia in eight days, the Netherlands in 16 days and Italy in 19 days.

Cargoes traveling on the China-Europe rail routes have also been expanding in categories, from electronics and grocery products initially to some 200 categories including mechanics, chemical products, textiles and foods.

Local products in Xinjiang have also caught these trains heading for Europe. For example, locally produced tomato ketchup has arrived at the dinner tables of Italians, thanks to the train service.

The Alataw Pass and Horgos of Xinjiang are the two ports through which the trains enter or exit China.

Wang Chuanjie, head of the Alataw Pass Customs, said the port now sees an average of seven international trains passing through it every day, compared to only one every month several years ago.

Staff at the two ports have been working to improve customs clearance efficiency for the trains, from 24 hours previously to less than 14 hours.

Ning Jizhe, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said earlier this year that more places would be connected by the China-Europe trains.

China will continue promoting the commercialization of the trains and upgrade the trains with digital technologies, he said.

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