New rail route connects Antwerp to Chinese heartland | Business | Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 20.05.2011

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New rail route connects Antwerp to Chinese heartland

A new freight train route has recently gone into operation connecting Antwerp in Belgium to the western Chinese city of Chongqing, 11,000 kilometers away. It provides an alternative to air and sea shipping.

Freight train

Rail transport is faster than maritime shipping

Five times a week, a freight train leaves the harbor of Antwerp on the start of an extremely long journey. It passes through Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Mongolia before reaching its final destination: Chongqing, a city of 32 million people in western China.

The train is part of a multinational project that aims to provide a new transportation option and connect a major European port with a fast-growing industrial center in the Chinese interior.


Chongqing is a trade center for western China

"In addition to rapid, but expensive air freight and the inexpensive but slow ocean shipping, now there is a relatively quick and cheap alternative," said Zeng Su, the chief representative in Chongqing for the Antwerp region's development authority.

The project was conceived last year by the cities of Antwerp and Chongqing, the Swiss rail company Hupac as well as a Russian and Chinese rail concerns. The first train rolled out of the Port of Antwerp on May 9.

Cutting red tape

The train travels along existing tracks, and although it crosses six national borders, Belgian authorities are working with officials along the route, trying to avoid delays due to customs formalities.

"We want to establish a 'green lane' where there are agreements between customs authorities of the individual nations involved," said Mark van Peel, president of the Antwerp Port Authority.

He said he hopes to have the agreements in place by October and shorten a 20 to 25-day journey down to one that takes between 15 and 20 days.

Customs signalling disk

The Port of Antwerp is working to cut time spent at customs

Though not well known in the West, Chongqing is one of the world's largest cities, whose total administrative area is bigger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Located on the Yangtze River, the city has a population of 32 million.

The Chinese government has actively promoted the Chongqing's development as the major industrial and trade center of the country's interior. It is hoped that underdeveloped regions in western China can profit of its rapid growth and growing importance.

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze gave Chongqing direct access to the East China Sea. The controversial dam's construction created a 600 kilometer-long reservoir that allows even deep-sea vessels to reach the city.

A new option, not replacement

But, that takes time, especially given that Chongqing is about 1,500 kilometers from the coast. The new rail track is meant to be an important complement to traditional maritime shipping.

rail yard

The trip to China could take just 15 to 20 days in the future

"The rail route opens up completely new possibilities with regards to logistics in Chongqing," said van Peel. "The new rail service will also help move along the development of China's hinterlands."

Antwerp has Europe's second-largest port and is an important hub for European trade, as well as commerce with the Americas and Africa. The operators of the new Antwerp-Chongqing line hope it will connect this European hub with an increasingly important Asian one.

Even if rail shipping is faster than sea transport and cheaper then air freight, there is little chance that it will ever become serious competition to container ships.

"If we look 15 or 20 years in the future, we still think less than 1 percent of what is transported by ship will be moved by rail," said von Peel.

Still, he added, the new rail route could be especially suitable for freight which needs to reach its destination quickly but which is too heavy for air transport, such as products for the chemicals and automobile industries.

Author: Christoph Ricking / jam

Editor: Sean Sinico

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