Paris: Toys and DVD players reaching European shelves on a ‘new silk route´ by rail -- that’s the goal for six train companies already testing a ‘fast freight´ line between Beijing and Hamburg.
“China is the workhouse of the world -- the potential is enormous,” said Luc Aliadiere, chief executive of the Paris-based International Union of Railways (UIC).
A test-run lugging 100 containers of toys, electrical goods and industrial products left Beijing on Wednesday, overseen by Chinese Transport Minister Liu Zhijun and German railways Deutsche Bahn (DB) President Hartmut Mehdorn.
The convoy is due to reach the port city of Hamburg, 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) away “in under 20 days,” half the time it would take by traditional shipping lanes, according to DB.
The DB project has been in development for the three years, and as soon as journey times can be reduced to 15 days, is expected to become commercially viable.
According to Chinese authorities, that is only 12 months away. However, there are “organizational problems,” according to Michel Savy, a freight specialist at the University of Paris XII. “It’s customs issues which hold up the trains,” he said.
Work is ongoing across Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Belarussian, Polish and German authorities to limit the amount of time goods spend undergoing customs inspections.
“It’s like a new (high-speed) TGV line coming into play, and now it’s becoming real,” said Aliadiere. “In a few years’ time, we will see direct trains between Beijing and Berlin,” Mehdorn predicted in 2006.
For the rail companies, the prize is straightforward -- “grabbing a slice of the (enormous) pie” that is Chinese exports, as Aliadiere put it.
According to his figures, “export transport costs taking goods from China to Europe are worth some $ 4.4bn per day,” with almost all freight moved by sea.
The rail companies are trying to carve out “niche markets” for higher-value products where faster transport than by boat, at lower cost than by air, makes commercial sense, Aliadiere added.
With Chinese manufacturing moving increasingly to the interior, and away from the main ports like Shanghai, maritime freight loses its competitiveness if thousands of kilometres of haulage are needed to get it to dock.
Of course, “there is a lot still needing done,” the UIC chief stated. Trains can sit stuck on buffers for days on end, “sometimes a week if the customs officials are so minded.”
For the UIC, these administrative issues take precedence, even if differing rail widths in Russia mean goods must switch trains at least twice between Beijing and Hamburg. Changing engines takes “10 or 15 minutes,” Aliadiere smiled.