AN 8,000-mile rail journey - the world's longest - from Yiwu in Zhejiang province, 170 miles southwest of Ningbo, came to an end as planned in Madrid when 40 containers arrived in the Spanish capital, hopefully opening a new landbridge to Europe.
While China is hopeful of freeing itself from air and ocean freight dependence, the eye-catching overland journey is small beer. Eight million TEU go by ship to Europe every year against the 13,000 TEU that go by rail.
Travelling through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France, the train brought toys, tools and other retail goods, with operators priding themselves by shaving off 10 days from a standard ocean voyage.
Facilitating the process are customs agreements between China, Kazakhstan, Russia and the EU that allow block trains booked by one party to be cleared at the Kazakhstani border without further inspection until reach the destination.
China has spent US$40 billion on infrastructure to promote rail projects that reduce air and ocean transport dependence, notes Newark's Journal of Commerce, adding that rail freight to Europe is a 10th of the cost of air freight and is 30 days faster than sending goods by sea with major European centres within 14 days' reach.
Regular trains now run between China and Europe, one, a thrice weekly service carrying as many as 50 containers. Electronics manufacturer Hewlett Packard (HP) now runs a block train service from Chongqing to Duisburg 6,800 miles away.
Other services run between Kazakhstan and Liangyungang, near Shanghai and the Trans-Siberia Railway to the north connects China with Europe via Moscow.
Next year, DB Schenker plans a weekly backhaul train from Hamburg to the electronics centre, Zhengzhou, where Cargolux now flies. That 6,500-mile run takes 17 days to go through Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan.
There are still serious technical snags, the biggest being rail guage change in Russia and again in Europe when containers must be reloaded on new rail cars.
Source : HKSG.