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I’ve written extensively about the emerging network of trans-Eurasian direct cargo trains that is rapidly linking together dozens of cities in China and Europe. I often boast that these trains can make this 9,000-12,000 kilometer journey in less than two weeks — and sometimes in as little as 10.5 days. Then a reader named Tony Restall left a comment on an article about the new train from the east of China to London and taunted:
“12,000 kms in 16 days — seems like the Slow Train from China.”
He then did the math which showed that if these trains were to travel around the clock, their average speed would only equate to 30-40 kilometers per hour.
While I explained that although these are direct trains that have a special “express” categorization, that doesn’t mean they’re moving non-stop around the clock. Through China, Central Asia, and Russia these trains make around 1,100 kilometers per day, while in Europe, where the rail network is more condense, their daily coverage drops to around 350 to 400 kilometers. But he had a point: although this is one of the faster cargo rail networks on the planet, it's really not going that fast.
“Double the speed = 8 days. Now that would be interesting,” he added.
But this is precisely what China and Russia intend to do — and more.
Russia, a country which knows the benefits of trans-continental rail transport perhaps better than any other (Russia’s Trans-Siberian line is the main thoroughfare of the New Silk Road’s northern rail corridor), is looking to develop the most technologically advanced rail network on the planet. Last month during a meeting of the United Russia Party, Russian Railways President Oleg Belozerov declared that his country would become the vanguard of a movement to extend high-speed cargo rail lines across their country, connecting China with Europe.
"We plan to reach China via Kazakhstan and to carry special, high-profit cargoes to Europe via Russia,” he said.
The railway president claimed that a high-speed cargo rail line could drop the lead time between Europe and China to just two days — which in some instances is even faster than is needed for air transport. To these ends, Russian Railways claims to be developing a train that can carry a full load of cargo at 300 kilometers per hour.
A locomotive of the Sapsan high-speed train is seen before its maiden journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg, in Moscow, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)
While high-speed passenger trains are something that have been rapidly covering Asia and Europe, high-speed cargo trains have not been keeping pace — and in some regards they are more or less theoretical. But with new industrial centers focusing on the production of high-value, typically high-tech goods rising up in western China, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, the economic fundamentals behind trans-Eurasian rail is growing ever more sound.
It is the transport of high-value goods that have driven the rapid proliferation of the 39-line network of China-Europe cargo trains. For most types of products, slow and cheap sea transport is more than adequate, but for expensive types of merchandise that need to be delivered fast, trans-Eurasian rail is becoming a real alternative to expensive air freight.
Russia's proposed high-speed cargo rail line would be packaged with the much-discussed Moscow-Kazan high-speed passenger train, that will extend for 770 kilometers between the two cities, allowing people to get back and forth in as little as three hours. Construction is set to begin on this line later this year, with $6.5 billion of loans and $1.6 billion of FDI coming from China, while a German consortium led by Siemens, Deutsche Bank, and Deutsche Bahn have promised to invest over $2.8 billion into construction. This rail line is tentatively estimated to open around 2023.
The broader plan is to extend the Moscow-Kazan high-speed rail line through Kazakhstan and all the way to Beijing, 7,769 kilometers away, feeding into China’s existing 19,000+ kilometer HSR system. This project would tie into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and will in large part supplant Russia’s iconic, though aging, Trans-Siberian rail line. If this high-speed line is actually built, the total end to end commute time would be more than quartered, dropping to just under 33 hours.
This article first appeared on www.forbes.com
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