Yiwu-London railway line
The Yiwu – London Railway Line is a freight railway route from Yiwu, China, to London, United Kingdom, covering a distance of roughly 12,000 km (7,456 miles). This makes it the longest railway freight route in the world. It is one of several long distance freight railway routes from China to Europe on the “New Eurasian Land Bridge” and part of establishing a modern-day Silk Road. The route was opened on the 1st of January 2017, making London the 15th European city to have a railway route connection with China, and takes 18 days to complete (other European cities with China-Europe railway routes include Hamburg, Madrid, Rotterdam, Warsaw, etc.).
From Yiwu, a trading center 300 km south of Shanghai, the track passes through 9 countries: China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, UK. In order to get to the UK the route passes through the Channel Tunnel between France and the UK.
Two breaks of gauge exist. First from standard gauge in China to Russian gauge in Kazakhstan and second back to standard gauge when crossing from Belarus to Poland. Because of the difference in gauges trains go through Bogie exchange or have containers reloaded to railcars of the correct gauge.
Despite the need to go through Bogie exchange, the trip takes only 18 days to complete. In comparison, it takes a large cargo vessel about 30–45 days of sailing to get from East Asia to Northern Europe.
Trains are run by different companies. To start with, trains depart for London once a week transporting household items, garments, bags and suitcases. The media has perceived the route as a publicity stunt, as household items and clothing do not require the expedited shipping.
The Yiwu – London railway project is part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, which attempts to strengthen the country’s trade connections and revive the Silk Road of the past.
While the physical manifestation of and the need for the Silk Road may have eroded over the years due to the collapse of the Safavid Empire and advances in technology, Chinese president Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” policy has breathed new life into trade of goods by land. The initiative calls for integration of the countries that make up the ancient Silk Road into a robust economic area. The integration will take place through building infrastructure for broadening trade, and increasing cultural exchanges. One Belt, One Road calls for three distinct routes to be established: north, central and south. The north route goes through Central Asia, Russia and then Europe. The central route goes through Central Asia, West Asia, Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. The south route goes through Southeast Asia and to the Indian Ocean. The Yiwu-London train is part of the north route.
While the Eurasian Land Bridge was completed in 1990, when the railway systems of China and Kazakhstan connected at Alataw Pass, it was first in October 2008 that the first Trans-Eurasia Logistics train reached Hamburg from Xiangtan officially traveling along the entire north route. However, it is only since July 2011 that the railway line has been used for regular transport when a freight route was established between Chongqing, China, and Duisburg, Germany. Since then several other European cities have established railway freight connections with China on the network. London is the latest European city to establish such a freight route when the Yiwu-London route opened in January 2017. It is expected that the importance of the railway trade routes will increase with time, as anticipated cumulative investment over an indefinite timescale for the One Belt, One Road policy is estimated to be between 4 and 8 trillion US dollars.
The Yiwu-London railway line opened just as Britain was looking outside of Europe to expand their trade, as it is unclear how Brexit will affect UK trade with Europe. British Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that she intends to trigger Article 50 in March 2017, officially starting the Brexit negotiations. May is seeking a hard-exit – withdrawing from the single market and European customs union –, leaving trade in limbo as it could take years before new trade deals are fully negotiated. However, at this point in time it is unknown whether the Yiwu-London railway line will lead to increased trade between China and the UK. Both governments hope that it helps strengthen trade between the two countries, but the service is only scheduled to run once a week for a few months in order to assess demand. If the successful, the rail link could be made permanent. The China-Madrid railway line has experienced success by transporting olive oil back to China and it is expected that in order to become as successful, the China-London line will need to establish a similar export flow. The export flow will most likely consist of British designer goods, providing an opportunity for companies to expand to Chinese markets.
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