Fact Check
'Steel camel caravans' link China, Central Asia and Europe
By Lan Xinzhen  ·  2023-08-04  ·   Source: NO.32 AUGUST 10, 2023

A China-Europe freight train departed from Yiwu in Zhejiang Province, east China, on July 29 for Madrid, Spain, marking the 10,000th China-Europe freight train trip this year alone. Those trains have accumulatively transported 1.08 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), a unit of volume used in maritime and rail transport statistics, of goods this year, up 27 percent year on year.

The China-Europe freight train service is a flagship program of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a China-proposed initiative boosting connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes. It took seven years, from 2011 to 2018, for the first 10,000 trips to be finished. But that same number of trips took place within the first seven months of this year.

As of late June this year, 73,000-plus trips had been made, transporting 6.9 million TEUs of goods. China and Europe have a high demand for cross-border goods transportation and this train service connects nearly 100 Chinese cities to 216 cities in 25 European countries. If a shipment is moving over 1,500 km and isn't time sensitive, rail transport can prove a very efficient supply chain solution—when compared with air and maritime transportation. Its advantages include reliability, i.e., standardized transit schedules, cost effectiveness, the ability to haul large loads and eco-friendliness.

The value of goods transported by China-Europe freight trains accounts for more than 10 percent of total trade between both parties. The recent five years have seen the train trips increase by 55 percent annually, while the cargo has expanded from things like home supplies, cellphones and computers in the early days to around 50,000 types of goods ranging from automobiles to chemical products today.

Thanks to the train service, China's central and western regions, Central Asia and inland European countries are benefiting from the advantages once solely reserved for port cities, so that they, too, can take on a bigger role in cross-border trade. For example, located some 260 km from the Baltic Sea, the Polish capital of Warsaw now has easy access to a range of goods from China. And inland cities in China, on their part, can now purchase, for example, farm produce from European countries.

The three-year COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the role of the China-Europe freight train in stabilizing the international industrial and supply chains. With maritime transport severely disrupted, these trains were shuttling back and forth to transport essential goods to Europe and Central Asia. The service helped connect countries there to stable supply and industrial chains in their fight against the pandemic as well as in their economic recovery. Some Western voices had previously argued that the freight train is a political tool, but its performance during the pandemic shattered this notion.

This year marks the BRI's 10th anniversary. At a time of sluggish global trade growth, the 10,000 China-Europe freight train trips in the first seven months of this year alone demonstrate just how China's trade with countries along the Belt and Road routes is bucking the trend and becoming increasingly interconnected. After the outbreak of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in early 2022, several Western voices once again downplayed the BRI's capacity and potential. However, the facts have proved them wrong. Despite the conflict, the train service has remained up and running, exhibiting its importance.

Today's international turmoil and rising uncertainty severely undermine the world's multilateral trading system. The China-Europe freight train service is thus becoming an important growth pole for countries along the Belt and Road routes to rely on. Having brought tangible benefits to countries involved, the train service is expected to progressively support sustainable economic growth along its tracks.

(Print Edition Title: Going Like a Train)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to lanxinzhen@cicgamericas.com 

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