China has kicked off a new rail-freight service to Britain as part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to strengthen trade ties with Europe. The first train departed Yiwu in eastern Zhejiang province on 1 January and will cover more than 12,000 kilometers in about 18 days before reaching London, China Railway Corp. said in a statement according to Bloomberg. The service, carrying garments, bags and suitcases among other cargo, will pass through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France.
London becomes the 15th European city with direct trains from China following the unveiling of Xi’s so-called Belt and Road initiative in 2013. The plan put transport links at the center of efforts to create a modern Silk Road and boost commercial ties to markets across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
While the train can carry about 200 containers, versus 20,000 on a large cargo vessel, the trip takes about half as long as a 30-day sailing between East Asia and northern Europe. That will make rail a competitive option when maritime shipments are held up or miss the booked departure, especially compared with airfreight, which costs twice as much, according to Michael White, operations director at Brunel Shipping, the UK booking agent for the service.
Brunel is also involved in the operation of a China-Madrid freight train that’s run for more than a year and ranks as the world’s longest rail service, ahead even of the Moscow-Vladivostok trans-Siberian passenger route. The Spanish train carries olive oil back to China, and White said in an interview with Bloomberg that the UK operation, which will unload in Barking, east London, needs to tap a similar export flow, possibly of British designer goods.
China has initially set aside about US$40 billion in a fund to finance roads and railways abroad under President Xi’s strategy, while trade with countries along the corridor could reach $2.5 trillion in about a decade.