China’s Freight System Future: Is a High-Speed Rail Possible?

Next month, the Chinese will be celebrating its new year with Spanish wine, olive oil and ham, sent to China from Madrid on the world’s now longest rail route. The Eurasia rail link stretches more than 8,100 miles from the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu to Madrid, Spain. The route, which is longer than the Trans-Siberian railway and the Orient Express, also has stops in various European and Asian countries including Poland, Germany and Russia, along the way.

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The rail line has been dubbed China’s “New Silk Road,” and one source called it the project of the new century” and “the greatest trade story” the world will see for the next 10 years. But, China may be setting it sights even higher, aiming for a high-speed freight train in the future.

First “Silk Road” Journey

The first train to travel the full route left China on Nov. 19, 2014 and arrived in Madrid on Dec. 9. It was carrying containers of toys, stationery and other goods from China’s Zhejiang province, which is the world’s largest wholesale hub for small consumer goods.

While it still remains to be seen how well the freight cars will be loaded with export goods from Europe back to China rather than just carrying imports from China. Such a lengthy and immovable rail line also presents its own set of supply chain security risks. But from a procurement standpoint in Europe, it’s certainly nice to have more cost-effective transportation options than just ocean/inter-modal.

The train route’s length and its cargo are not the only things that make it unique. It’s speed is also important. The train took 3 weeks to travel to its final destination in Madrid - about half the time the same cargo would take to travel by sea. Another benefit? The fact the train is more environmentally friendly than road transport, releasing 62% less CO2 emissions than cargo trucks, The Guardian reported.

What About A High-Speed Rail Route?

Three weeks may be impressive for now, but what is the likelihood of a high-speed train route transporting goods across the continents in the future? High-speed trains are emerging at increasing rates around the world. California, for instance, just broke ground on a high-speed rail line that will transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It’s the first of such a rail system for the US.

But this rail line transports people, not consumer goods. Is a high-speed freight chain a possibility? China hopes so. If built, goods could be transported from China to Europe in just 2 days, not 21. But China’s existing high-speed rail system, which, again, transports people, has had some problems in the past. In July 2011, two high-speed trains crashed, killing 40 people. Nearly a year later, it was discovered numerous parts of the rail tracks were sinking. The problem was blamed on the fact the tracks were built on unstable wetlands.

With China’s current high-speed rail facing possible safety and sinking threats, it seems like a future high-speed freight rail system may be far from reality, at the moment at least. Lisa Reisman, CEO of Azul Partners, Inc. and executive editor of our sister site MetalMiner, said the ambition of such a project is remarkable, even “admirable.”


“Whether or not they can pull it off from an engineering and materials standpoint is quite another story,” she added.

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First Voice

  1. Logistics On-looker:

    If the Class A railway operators were used as the basis of comparison, outside city area, such trains had been operated at 100 mph or 160 kmph; in which case the theoretical time over the furthest distance between China and Europe [at Madrid] would be some 13,000 km. Without stopping at national borders, the time would be less than 4 days. Realistically, this is rather impossible though if China’s proposal to lay a totally new gauge of 2m wide plus axles of 65 ton capacity, then the number of containers that could be transported if the experience of the US Class A operators could be used; then the volume in terms of say a thousand TEU per train could significant change the whole scenario. Accepting that the job could be done within 7 days; this would be the shifting paradigm to the Far-East to EU trade. It is noted that if the agricultural products growth in Russia are maintained like what they did over the past few years, this will practically guarantee the success of the whole project.

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