The New Silk Road - Connecting Europe with China
The New Silk Road rail route between Chongqing China and Mannheim Germany opened in 2018 and is revolutionalizing logistics and transportation. The 11,200 kilometer route utilizes existing rail networks across Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhastan, and China. (*1)
There are 30 trains operating per week to and from China and the three rail ports in Germany: Mannheim, Duisburg and Hamburg (which is also a very large freight seaport). Yet the initiative is much larger – over 70 countries have signed up to be part of the New Silk Road. (*3,4)
The Mannheim shunting yard will get even more traffic as the freight coming from Genua and Triest in Italy gets routed through Germany. The freight is unloaded from the container ships in the Italian seaports and transported via rail through such hubs as Mannheim as part of the New Silk Road.
The New Silk Road initiative is officially called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)and is sponsored and funded by the Chinese government with an overall investment of $1 trillion and estimated completion in 2049. (*4)
It takes over 35 days to transport freight one-way by sea between China and Europe. Now, with the New Silk Road railway network, it takes only 15-19 days over land. Thus, logistics companies achieve a 50% improvement in transportation times with only a 15% increase in costs. (*1)
German manufacturers in the region, such as Daimler, were the first to take advantage of the New Silk Road by sending 37 containers containing valuable component parts in one train shipment to their automotive manufacturing plants in China. (*1)
Before the New Silk Road had opened, Daimler trucked the component parts from their plants near Stuttgart to a warehouse in Speyer. In Speyer the containers are loaded onto 3-4 barges (4 levels of 4 containers on each barge) for transport on the Rhine River to the seaports in Rotterdam(Netherlands). In Rotterdam, the containers are moved from the barges to the ocean freighters and sent to China. (*1)
Over the past two years, the drought has greatly impacted freight traffic on the Rhine River due to the dramatically reduced water levels forcing most of the freight onto the already overloaded highways or limiting the capacity which the ship can transport. (*1) This lead to higher prices for gasoline and diesel for everyone (individuals and companies) last year, for example.
Despite all of the advantages the overland rail route is offering for cargo transport, one year later the New Silk Road has not gotten much traffic starting from Germany. (*2)
What are some of the reasons for the lack of adoption for the local (Mannheim/Ludwigshafen/Rhein-Neckar region) manufacturers?
German chemical producers like BASF or Roche require specially regulated temperatures in the shipping containers to ensure the quality and stability of their chemical components and/or products during the long transport. The New Silk Road cannot support these requirements today. (*2)
Local manufacturers in Mannheim, like John Deere, don't see a benefit in the improved cargo transportation via rail because there is not a market for their highly sophisticated (and expensive) products in China right now. (*2)
The majority of the freight on overland New Silk Road is flowing from China to Europe with weekly shipments.
The origins of East-West trade routes go back to the first and second centuries BC and brought innovations such as paper to Europe and glass to China. Interestingly, it was the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who gave it the name Silk Road in 1877 AD long after it had been shut down in 1453 AD.(*5)
In the English-speaking (US) media I have never read any mention of the re-opened Silk (rail) Road. There’s only news about Trump and the US-China trade war. As the US is distracted by Trump‘s tweets, China is quietly building up an international trading dynasty for centuries to come.
A few months ago I posted a blog about America's long-distrance freight train: the Union Pacific Railroad.
I captured the aerial shot (photo #1) during a helicopter (Robinson R44) sightseeing tour of the Rhein-Neckar region in 2015.
Sources 1-2 are in German, related to Mannheim. Source #1 has a nice 3-minute video (in German). Sources 3-6 are in English related to Silk Road in general