By on June 11, 2013

If and when China’s car export machine ever gets going in earnest, the city of Chongqing in Western China could become one of its main export hubs. Chongqing is not a sea port. It is the far eastern terminus of a 7,000 mile railroad line that connects Chongqing with Duisburg in Germany.

Train Nikkei - Pocture courtesy

Currently, the train brings auto parts to China. “A freight train carrying 41 containers full of autoparts arrived in Chongqing in mid-March, sent by U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co. and marking the first direct shipment from Germany by rail,” writes The Nikkei [sub]. BMW, “has been shipping parts mainly by rail, rather than by sea, since its second plant began operating in May last year,” says the Tokyo paper. When trains go from China to Germany, they currently bring mostly notebooks.  A freight train can carry about 80,000 units.

By boat to China, the trip would take between 50-60 days, all told, says the paper.  By train, it takes two weeks. Railways costs are 70-80 percent higher than sea freight, but time is money. There are plans in China to connect to Europe via high speed rail. This would cut the time down to two days.

The transcontinental rail freight service was launched in 2011 on an experimental basis. Now, one train loaded with 40 containers leaves Germany for China every day.

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17 Comments on “A Silkrailroad, Made For Cars...”

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Silk road indeed!

    What is the name of the train? Marco Polo?

  • avatar

    In the U.S., depending on topography, 8,000 horsepower (a pair of G.E. Dash 9 locomotives) can generally move about 200 53′ ft containers at a time in a single train.

    There are usually speed restrictions however as most intermodal cars (flat or well) don’t have bearing design for speeds consistently in excess of 60 to 70 MPH max so a high speed infrastructure doesn’t buy you much for freight. Additionally, most loco’s designed for intermodal service are usually geared for 79 MPH maximum.

    This is really interesting as the eastern U.S. ports are gearing up for Panamex sized ships, coming from Asia, that will make ports of call to eastern ports with a shorter rail haul to market; water transit being cheaper than rail on a per ton basis. This example is the reverse, using a longer haul, more expensive rail line haul to buy a savings in time over a cheaper water move.

    At one time, I worked in the automotive marketing department of a Class 1 (big) railroad and we still moved a lot of parts by boxcar. These were huge cars with an external length of 84 or 86 feet. This was 20 years ago and while that business hasn’t completely disappeared, it is a modicum of what it was then.

  • avatar

    How are they going to get around Russian gauge rail lines which are incompatible with everyone else in the world?

    I know that if you want to take a train into Russia right now – you have to stop and have the wheels changed out which takes quite some time.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      That, and one has to consider the clearance gauges along the way. I would assume the Chinese end is newly-built and probably up to North American specs, but I’m inclined to doubt that the European end can handle tri-level auto carriers.

  • avatar

    Another route that’s in progress is a rail link down to Myanmar, which opens a sea route out to the Indian Ocean, then up the Suez into southern Europe.

  • avatar

    A large-ish container ship can hold 14,000 containers. That would be the equivalent of 350 40-container trains. As a lawyer, I have increasingly gotten calls from consumers whose furniture is late in arriving, I ask them if they know how long it takes to load and unload a 14,000 container ship.

    • 0 avatar

      At a modern port, a couple days, working around the clock. Amazingly efficient these days, and those ships don’t make any money sitting still.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s for a full unload and a full reload. When I rode container ships back in the 90s we might be in a given port a little more than 24 hours. In places like Hawaii and Guam, where we really only offloaded a small amount of cargo and took on mostly empties, a little more than 12 hours was the norm.

        Our big turnaround was KaohSiung and we would be there a full two, maybe two and a half days. It was one of the few places we got to shut down the boilers and do fireside inspections etc. I think that maintenance was one of the reasons we stayed there as long as we did.

        You don’t get a lot of time ashore on a container ship, especially if you work in the engine department.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    This is quite fascinating. China will spread its web of connections globally.

    Also, if you look at the future of limited access highways you will one day be able to drive across the Eurasian/African continents. I do think soon you will be able to drive from anywhere in China to Singapore and to the tip of India on a limited access highway.

    Political stability will be the key factor in ensuring this works. Look at what the Ukranians and Ruskies did to Europe a few years ago with the Russian gas over those two countries disputing.

    Diversification of transport infrastructure will be needed to ensure reliability.

    The upside for the Chinese is, how much will the their Navy cost?

  • avatar

    That looks like Ukrainian built 2TE-116 by Luhanskteplovoz. Yes, wheels have to be changed to a narrow gauge, but since majority of route goes through former Soviet block countries, it would have to be done in Central Europe.

  • avatar
    Adrian Roman

    On the other hand, the train in the picture is a stock photo – it hauls fuel from Russia to China, not freight cars/containers. So the engine might not be the same as for a German parts train.

  • avatar

    RPOL, thank you, that was one of the most lucid and informative comment I have read in a long time, methink though that zee Germans will quickly design a new Lok (locomotive) capable of hauling efficiently at speeds above 79 mph. The competition of Panamex should spur that.

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