Following the new Silk Road all the way to… Barking

Great Wall, China © Dominic Stephen Poon

China and the West have been trading partners for centuries, and the advent of a new direct freight train service between China and the United Kingdom promises to further enhance trading relations.

The train left Yiwu in Zhejiang Province in eastern China laden with 44 containers of clothing and household goods and, eighteen days and 12,000 kms later, it arrived at the western extremity of its journey, DB Cargo’s London Eurohub freight terminal at Barking, prompting comparisons to a new Silk Road.

Revival of the Silk Road

The original Silk Road derived its name from one of the principal commodities that China used to trade to the West, although the trading route had existed long before the term was ever coined.

China is known to have had economic and political relationships with countries as far afield as those bordering the Mediterranean, Persia and the Horn of Africa dating back to antiquity.

It has been an ambition of current Chinese president Xi Jinping to revive both these ancient overland and maritime trading routes with his “One Belt, One Road” policy, with trillions of dollars of investment poured into the project.

The project has not been received without some concerns regarding China’s growing geopolitical influence in Central Asia, but the stated aims of connectivity and improved trade look towards a potentially optimistic future of cooperation.

A Two-Way Exchange

It would be easy to depict the UK as an economy swamped by cheap Chinese retail goods, but there is more to the overall picture than that. Over the last decade, both imports and exports between China and the UK have been increasing. Although the UK’s trade deficit with China has also been increasing, China now ranks as the 4th most important destination for UK exports, roughly equal to France and the Netherlands in terms of value of trade, and this status is only likely to increase following Brexit.

Although the Yiwu train arrived with imports destined to stock UK high-street shops, it will also leave with high-end luxury goods made in Britain to be sold by retailers throughout China.

Greener by Train

Although rail travel is not as green a form of transport as travel by sea, it is considerably less harmful in terms of CO2 emissions than air travel.

It is estimated that the Yiwu train has shaved two weeks off relative delivery times by sea, and halved costs of comparable air transport.

However, the idea of a ‘direct’ train may still be something of a misnomer. During its long journey through China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Belgium, France and finally the UK, the train was required to change rolling-stock several times, since not all of the track gauges are yet unified along the entire route.

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