London Links Deeper Into The 'New Silk Road' With New Direct Train To China
On Monday April 10th the UK upped its ante in the collective initiative known as the New Silk Road — an emerging network of enhanced economic corridors and trade routes that are rising up between China and Europe — by launching the first direct cargo train laden with British goods bound for China. In the aftermath of Brexit, the UK is fully linking in with this potentially game changing endeavor, which was represented by the block train consisting of 32 matching royal blue China Railway Express shipping containers that ceremoniously departed from London Gateway to Yiwu, over 12,000 kilometers and nine countries away.
Karl Gheysen, who oversaw the creation of a key New Silk Road dry port on the Chinese border of Kazakhstan and is currently developing the European operations for the Kazakh transport company KTZ Express, took the stage after DP World CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, and drove home the core message of the event: “Railways are connecting countries, railways are connecting cultures, and railways are connecting people.”
Europe is finally waking up to the potential of this increased interconnectivity. After hearing about the concept of the New Silk Road and trans-Eurasia land bridges for over a decade, the firstChina-Europe trains were generally met with skepticism in many European transportation circles. But now, hardly five years after the first routes went into operation, there is a 39-line network up and running which directly connects 15 cities in Europe with upwards of 20 cities in China. Cargo volumes along these routes are rising each year, and nearly 2,000 trains have now crossed this continental expanse.
Early critics of the New Silk Road and China’s Belt and Road initiative, would often write the endeavor off as being little more than another way for China to dump more of their products onto Western markets. During the early days of trans-Eurasian rail this position was appearing as if it would be validated, as these trains truly were China to Europe operations, with upwards of 90% of the containers making the return trip empty. It was a state of affairs that mirrored the real and perceived trade imbalance between China and Europe perfectly, and the resolution of this became one of the key focuses of the next phase of trans-Eurasian rail development.
“Somebody once asked me,” Gheysen recollected, “‘Are you not opening the gates to Europe with that trans-Eurasian rail product,’ and my answer was very simple: ‘Yes, but we are opening the same gates to China.’”
Accessing this gateway to China is what gives significance to the train that pulled out of London Gateway on Monday. On January 18th the first direct train full of Chinese products rolled into Barking station in the UK. Now, less than three months later, a block train loaded with British goods is already going back in the opposite direction.
These new rail lines are now providing European manufacturers with a new way to get their products to the booming consumer and B2B markets in China. The type of goods that these trains are best suited for are precisely the ones that the rising middle class in China are now hungry to buy, and European pharmaceutical, automotive, luxury, agriculture, and food companies stand to benefit. BMW is already shipping cars to China by rail from Duisburg and Land Rover has shown interest in potentially using the newly established London to Yiwu train.