Till recently, the Western buyers of Chinese merchandise had two different transportation options. They could have chosen fast, but deliberately expensive air transport, or stick to good old maritime transport. Worth mentioning, the providers of the latter also decided to raise prices in order to recover loses inflicted by the global recession. But the third option appeared: transcontinental cargo railway transport.
Many centuries ago, Europe and China were connected by the famous Silk Road, which lead from the ancient capital of China, Xi’an, to Europe’s gateway, Constantinople. China exported silk, paper and iron, but the expansion of Turk tribes and development of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope caused its demise. With the political stability of post-Soviet countries, the reborn of the Silk Road is possible: instead of caravans, the distance between China and Europe is covered by container trains.
The cargo usually passes through two main roads: the northern road goes from Vladivostok through Moscow to Poland and further, the southern crosses Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. Trans-Siberian railway, which is the major part of the northern road, is more than 100 years old and is considered to be the longest railway in the world; the Kazakh road is relatively new, transborder railway connection was built in the 90’s.
The first train loaded with the Chinese cargo arrived in Hamburg from Xiangtan on October 6, 2008. The connection is operated by Trans-Eurasia Logistics, by now, the company offers services on Beijing – Duisburg route (via Zabaikalsk, 14-26 days). From Duisburg, the cargo can be easily shipped further.
Another interesting route connects Chengdu in Sichuan with Lodz in Poland. It takes 14-16 for the train to cover the distance; YHF Intermodal Logistics keep the service running. As Lodz is located in the central part of Poland next to the crossing of the country’s most important highways, further delivery of the containers is relatively easy.
Belgian Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port, is connected by rail with the Chinese city of Chongqing. The service takes 20 to 25 days and is operated by Hupac. Antwerp offers professional intermodal services and the cargo can by shipped further to West Africa, North and South America.
Those are the most interesting train cargo services, obviously there are more to come. The most impressive plans include building transcontinental high-speed rail, which will connect London and Beijing. Rail connection has several advantages: it is safer and leaves lower carbon footprint than the other means of transportation. The cargo can be easily traced using GPS devices and unloading is easier, it doesn’t require huge container terminals. However, there are several factors that may influence the railway freight operations: China is supporting the development of the rail connections with Europe, but we must bear in mind that the trains are going through other countries. Any kind of political instability may severely affect transcontinental freight services. To successfully manage the transcontinental line, the shipment company has to deal with many rail operators, customs regimes and laws. On top of that, while most countries of the EU participate in a standard gauge network, Russia, Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries use wide gauge. Usually the train arriving on the border is unloaded completely, and the cargo is transferred to another train. But the whole operation is a time-waste.
An inevitable question about the expenses cannot be answered directly. Of course, the customer has to pay more for the faster service, and the shipment price of a single container is around $10,000, from three to two times more than on maritime transport. But of course transporting the equivalent of a container load by air would be very costly.
The majority of importers got used to the vices and virtues of maritime cargo transport and they patiently wait till the shipment reaches its destination. Many consider railway cargo transport as an emergency solution, used in cases in which the other means failed. This way of thinking may be right today, but the train connections between Europe and China are quickly developing and the prices may fall in the future. Just imagine what will happen if any of the railroads is adopted for double-stack containerization – the transport capacity will increase twofold.