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Rail Link from China to Germany :: Silk Road Revived

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In 2013, Zhengzhou, a business and logistics center in Central China, became the starting point for rail transport service to Hamburg, Germany and other European ports.  The trip is a 6,436 mile (10,214-kilometer) run taking 15 to 18 days — twice as fast as shipping goods by sea.

China manufactures products for the world.  We know that.  And it imports tons of materials and resources. Trade connections between China and the major markets of Europe and North America are essential for global economic prosperity.

National Rail Networks :: Look Back in Time

No one can overlook the importance of railroad infrastructure and the challenges of distance in historical economic advancement. If a country can’t get its goods to a robust marketplace with money, the economy doesn’t grow. Ship, truck and airplane transport are all part of the modern trade and transport equation, but rail is often the cheapest way to ship goods overland.

The world’s first national rail networks began in Britain, with the first inter-city line connecting the industrial midland city Manchester with the port of Liverpool in 1830.

So which country forged a national rail network next?  Seems like it was Egypt.  Other countries like France may have had short rail lines in place, but not an network that could move goods for long distances overland. Egypt’s rail system connected ports on the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea until the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.

I recently visited Cairo and hoped to visit the Egyptian Railway Museum which occupies a large area adjacent to track #1 at the main railway station.  In front of the station sits an antique locomotive, part of the Egyptian rail network built by Robert Stephenson.    The Stephenson family produced notable civil engineers, designers of railroads and bridges. The Stevenson family (writer Robert Louis Stevenson) were lighthouse engineers.

The locomotive designed and built by Robert Stephenson holds a place of honor in front of Cairo’s train station and nearby signs pointed to the museum inside the station.  As I walked closer, I saw the railway museum was in a state of deplorable ruin with massive piles of rubble outside, windows broken out, and an abandoned dozer tilting on piles of broken stones and tile.   The museum building was a wrecked shell.  Was a renovation project placed on hold because of the disruption caused by deep-seated unrest back in early 2011? Or was the building destroyed as a byproduct of cultural editing and property destruction undertaken during the “Year of Morsi” ?   I could only wonder.

2016 UPDATE:  The Railway Museum in Cairo has reopened.

The petition with millions of signatures pleading to remove Morsi was delivered to the high court on May 30, 2013, the afternoon I left Cairo.  About thirty days later, massive popular demonstrations were underway in Tahir Square,  early July 2013.   Subsequent to the citizen petition, the Egyptian army removed Mr. Morsi from office.  But that’s another story.

Historical Background on Railroads

The first section between Cairo and Alexandria was built in 1854.  By 1856-1858, Egypt had a functioning railway network, which fitted the British interest in keeping the region stable and  to secure faster communications and transport routes to India, the crown of British colonial resources.

Britain’s main interest centered on stabilizing the region, so the government tended to support the Ottoman Empire (theoretically sovereign over Egypt at the time) against all challengers, while British merchants tried to find business opportunities in the Nile Valley and Suez.  An “overland route” opened between the port of Alexandria and the Gulf of Suez in the 1840s and Robert Stephenson’s railroad, completed in the 1856, improved the route.

American continental railroads were instrumental in opening the western wilderness to travel and trade.  Russia, with distances far greater than the U.S.,  opened a single line from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1851. With more land distance than the U.S. to cover, and few or no western and southern ports, Russia understood the value of connecting the capital and to ports in the Far East. Russia had 36,000 miles of rail by 1900 and opened the Trans-Siberian RR in 1903. Japan built rail connections between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1872.

China was slow to build its rail system, but it is now third largest in the world.  During the past few decades, China has made lightening strides to improve its rail networks for passengers and freight. Some analysts believe the extensive new rail infrastructure may have been built too fast, given the problems along the Beijing to Tibet line.

The Mag-Lev rail connecter from Shanghai airport to the city’s terrific subway is a marvel, priced for tourists from the western hemisphere and wealthy Chinese. I also traveled on other Chinese railroads promoted as high speed, which were not.

Why Ship by Rail? Why Now?

Global Shipping Routes by GPS. Map: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/smart-takes/infographic-global-shipping-routes-mapped-using-gps-data/3605

Global Shipping Routes by GPS.
Map: Smart Planet.com

Maritime routes from Central China to Northern Europe go through the Suez Canal, because despite global warming and climate change, shipping on a great circle route over the North Pole isn’t a viable option yet. According to the information graphic, the China to Northern Europe sea route is one of the heaviest travelled routes in the world. It also goes right through pirate zone near the Horn of Africa. The Suez Canal and eastern Mediterranean, last time I checked, have issues of potential instability.

20130802_chinazug_karte

Rail link between China and Germany.
Map: DB Schenker

This land route from China to Northern Europe saves potentially 80 % of the cost compared with air shipments, and it’s about $489 cheaper on average, compared with road transportation. DB Schenker manages the transportation and logistics.

Nicknamed the New Silk Road, the route goes through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland. Zhengzhou International Inland Port Development Co Ltd is responsible for cooperating with partner rail companies in each country.

Variables affecting international rail transport include:
1) Rail loading gauge — how much weight can be tolerated on given carriers and track.
2) Track gauge — the width between the tracks.

There is broad gauge, standard or international gauge and narrow gauge. Further complicated by an array of different widths for broad gauge.

Loading gauges, couplings, container markings, and much more are encoded by the International Union of Railways, an organization created in 1922 to standardize rail transport industry practices. There are 82 active members including from Europe, Russia, China, Kazakhstan and others. The U.S. is an associate member.

With a route that travels through five or more countries, there are challenges along the route. The railroad containers have to be shifted by crane twice:

  • From Chinese rolling stock to the Russian style broad gauge line at the Kazakhstan-China border at Alashankou, in northeastern China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
  • Second transfer to standard gauge at the Polish-Belarusian border.

US Customers

Hewlett Packard was an early customer of the new rail connection. They booked the route for a major shipment of H-P computers manufactured in China destined to ship from Holland across the Atlantic Ocean to the US.

Here is a video of train route that the H-P computers traveled to Rotterdam, including crane transfer of containers from one railway track to a different gauge rail track.

I’m looking forward to the day passenger trains tun on the route!

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Written by patwa

02/10/2013 at 1:29 am

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