The first freight train linking Britain directly to China arrived in the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu on Saturday after a 12,000-km trip, becoming the world's second-longest rail route. This comes as the latest effort in China's drive to strengthen trade links with western Europe along a modern-day "Silk Road" route.
"The train arrived at around 9.30am to Yiwu on Saturday," the Yiwu Tianmeng Industry Company told AFP. The world's top trading nation launched the "One Belt, One Road" strategy in 2013, and has since poured millions into constructing vast infrastructure links.
The train that was reportedly carrying whisky, baby milk, pharmaceuticals and machinery departed from London on April 10. During its 20-day trip, it passed through France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan and finally reached its destination, Yiwu in eastern Zhejiang province, a major wholesale centre for small consumer goods.
Reports said the new route is 1,000 km shorter than the record-holding China-Madrid link, but is longer than Russia's famous Trans-Siberian railway.
London is the 15th city to be linked to a new freight network offered by the state-run China Railway Corporation, which says its services are cheaper than air transport and quicker than shipping.
Earlier, the government had said that the journey should be 30 days faster than moving the goods by ship; however, the pilot run took two days more than the 18 days expected.
According to Yiwu government, the train named East Wind has much less carrying capacity when compared to the 10,000 to 20,000 containers cargo ships can carry. This train has only 88 shipping containers.
Meanwhile, some experts have already questioned economic sensibility of the ambitious project. The total venture cost of the project is still not clear. "It is hard to say at this stage what the economic return will be, as the economic benefits will come over a long time," He Tianjie of Oxford Economics Hong Kong told AFP.
"However, the train is in some aspects more convenient and flexible. It can make multiple stops, allowing for the pick up and offloading of cargo along the way. Rail transport is also less affected by adverse weather conditions. Therefore, there may be a role for such long-haul rail links," he added.
China already has a regular direct freight train service to Germany, Europe's largest economy. One route links the Chinese megacity of Chongqing to Duisburg, a steel-making town and one of Germany's most-important transportation and commercial hubs, while, the other route links Beijing, the Chinese capital, to Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city.
The British officials said that Prime Minister Theresa May will visit China later this year and discuss about closer trade ties for when Britain leaves the European Union.
"The reality is that there is nothing new here. Transcontinental rail transit has existed for over a century," Theresa Fallon, director of the Centre for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies (CREAS) in Brussels said.
"The launch of the new rail route was a bid to show post-Brexit Britain that there were other trade options than neighbouring Europe," she added. "But this train will transport to China British socks, Scotch and soda pop - which hardly heralds a bright new age" of Sino-British trade."
Almost 80 per cent of the global trade is shipped by sea as freight train services face a lot of technical and bureaucratic hurdles depending on countries. The East Wind's locomotive and carriages had to be changed en route because of the larger gauge on railways in the former Soviet Union.