Last week, the most important players on the Iron Silk Road met for a conference in Amsterdam. The mood within the industry is excellent, and its representatives appeared accordingly confident. At the opening of the event, Onno de Jong, consultant at the consulting company, Ecorys, presented compelling rail corridor traffic figures.
From the beginning of January 2021 until the onset of the peak season in October, China-Europe rail traffic via Kazakhstan recorded 30% growth. The Trans-Siberian route through Russia even saw
growth of 40% over the same period. Spot prices per FEU (Forty-foot Equivalent Unit), rose to EUR 18,000 during this period. These figures, among others, surprised even freight train experts
among the participants of the European Silk Road Summit, organized by RailFreight.com.
Queues are getting longer
However, bottlenecks also increased, they said. Congestion in front of and within the Russian Pacific ports of Vladivostok and Vostochny, lasted for up to 10 days. A queue of up to 100 container trains waits at the Belarusian-Polish border. Once a train finally passes through, the next jam follows in front of the border bridge over the Oder River at the Polish-German crossing. Transit times have increased from about 14 days before the corona pandemic, to between 25-30 days now, fluctuating enormously. Ocean carriers such as Maersk, MSC, and BLUE WATER, have added rail products to their portfolios, and this is accelerating the growth of rail shipments in the corridor.
Russia wants to cut transit times almost in half
The head of the European RZDL - a subsidiary of Russian Railways RZD - Yulia Kosolapova, used the transport growth to explain RZD's planned investments of EUR 11 billion in the corridor until 2024. “In 2020, we had a little over half a million TEUs on the Trans-Siberian network in 10 months. Now it's 730,000 TEUs in the same period. We expect growth to 1.7 million TEU in 2024, and 3.7 million TEU in 2035,” she said in Amsterdam. Container throughput at the ports of Kaliningrad/Baltysk rose 462% and in the Far East by 3020% (sic!). Increasingly, container cargoes from Japan and Korea are entering the Russian rail network there by ship. From 2024, RZD aims to use these investments to reduce transit through Russia from the current 11-14 days to 7 days.
From Rail to Sea to Rail
In the current situation of congestion and delays, it has become a daily sport for rail logistics companies to find alternative routes for their trains along the Iron Silk Route, ones that have so far been little affected by traffic jams. Exotic routes are traded like insider tips - on the northern route, for example, they are routed via the exclave of Kaliningrad, where they are loaded onto container feeder ships. These take them via the Baltic Sea to the German ports of Mukran and Rostock, where they are integrated into the European rail network. The Mukran Port near Saßnitz in Germany has been able to increase its departures to up to 18 trains per week in both directions since an initial test train to and from Xian in November 2019. Containers are also distributed via the Mukran hub to Scandinavia and Rotterdam by shortsea vessels.
Various route options
Another option is the Middle Corridor. This leads from China via Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea. It continues via the Baku Port hub to Turkey or Georgia by rail. Then by ship over the Black Sea to Bulgaria or Romania. Experts, however, predict that only niche products will travel these transport routes to Central Europe.
More suitable are routes through Ukraine, which have worked so far despite the tense political situation with Russia. Gabriel Palko from PACOBO in the Ukrainian border town of Chop, proudly reports that he has already handled 100 transit trains from China this year. Outlandish, too, are transport routes from the Norwegian port of Narvik via Finland, Russia, to China - especially with fish products. Here, air freight transports are targeted with this product.
Turkey warns against continued Chinese subsidies
The geo-economic perspective of the Iron Silk Road also has political aspects. Chinese development platforms continue to subsidize westbound traffic. This is despite the fact that the significantly increased rates no longer require support from China. Yet the Chinese side wants to determine the transport route to Europe and the Middle East and influence it through its own investments along the corridor. Western market participants hope for an end to subsidies, to bring more market economy and neutrality to the corridor. So far, only a wish since China has announced the continuation of its subsidies in 2022. Mehmet Orgen, Director Corporate Affairs of the Turkish conglomerate, RC Industry-Erciyas Holding, therefore warns against too much Chinese influence in global transport chains: “China already globally dominates 96 ports outside its country. This includes ports in the USA, South American countries, and terminals in Australia.”
Europe wants to score with Global Gateway
The U.S. response is an Indo-Pacific Strategy to route goods flows via hubs in Korea, Japan, India, and Australia. To this end, there are the QUAD and AUKUS agreements of August 2017 and September 2021.
Europe's answer is the Global Gateway project. Here, EUR 4.6 billion is to flow into the Trans-European Network TENT-T - primarily into connections to the corridors of world trade in response to Chinese projects such as those for the port of Piraeus, for example.
Sanctions everywhere you look
The routing also includes all conceivable sanctions. EU sanctions against Russia, Russian sanctions against the EU, Norway, and Ukraine. European sanctions against Belarus. An attempt by dictator Lukashenko to launch counter-sanctions involving rail transit was nipped in the bud by Moscow and Beijing.
The Iron Silk Road is young, with the first container train running from Zhengzhou to Hamburg in 2008. It has become a fixture in the transportation market, occupying a growing niche between air and ocean freight. When the corona pandemic is over and supply chains and transport prices have stabilized, we will get a real picture of the corridor.
Felix Zimmermann reports from the meeting in Amsterdam. - https://www.silkroadsummit.eu/
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