The new Silk Road

The Silk Road blazed by Chinese imperial envoy Zhang Qian 2,000 years ago carried caravans of Chinese silk, Indian spices and Persian brocade on a 6,400 km journey between the Middle Kingdom and Europe. As a conduit of cultural and political exchange it also played a formative role in the development of the civilizations as diverse as China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe and Arabia. This ancient trade route has risen again offering shippers a new option for moving cargo between Asia and Europe. By Donald Urquhart.

The new Silk Road

Today, a new land route dubbed the ‘New Silk Road’, or probably more accurately the ‘New Silk Rail’, follows a similar path, pieced together by railways in six countries and taking half the time to transport goods between China and Europe than by ocean shipping.

“Transportation in the past between Asia and Europe meant choosing between air or ocean,” said Joost Van Doesburg, air freight policy manager at the European Shippers’ Council during the recent IATA World Cargo Symposium (WCS) in Shanghai. “Sea-air was introduced but never really flourished, but in the last few years there’s a new kid on the block – intercontinental rail freight.”

And so while faster and more expensive than ocean freight, it is also cheaper, but slower than airfreight, it is providing a key third option for shippers moving cargo between China and Europe. The new intercontinental rail route can save about 20 days compared with maritime transport and costs up to 80 per cent less than air freight.

Two principal routes comprise the modern day rail-based Silk Road – the West Corridor departing from Chengdu and the North Corridor along the old Trans-Siberian Railway. Interest in the routes as a means to stimulate economic growth, has been piqued at the highest levels.