The first freight train from Henan province to Europe started its journey yesterday on a route that offers an alternative to slower and riskier sea freight.
The train left Zhengzhou, capital of the province in central China, and will cross the border at the Alataw Pass in Xinjiang before passing through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland on its way to Hamburg, Germany.
It will take the train 16-18 days to cover the 10,214 kilometres, saving about 20 days compared with moving the cargo by sea.
"China has been constructing cross-border rail lines in recent years, which is important both economically and strategically," said Wang Mengshu, an expert in railways and tunnels at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
He said the country still relied heavily on sea freight in its trade with Europe. Land transport allows traders to avoid passing through the pirate-plagued Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca, where the political situation is complicated, Wang said.
Over the past three years, several mainland cities, including Chongqing, Chengdu in Sichuan, Wuhan in Hubei and Shenyang in Liaoning, launched rail freight services to Europe.
China is also building railways to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
The Railway Bureau in Zhengzhou said the first train to Europe carried 655 tonnes of goods worth US$1.52 million - including tyres, textiles, shoes and apparel - in 51 containers.
Two-thirds of the goods are from Henan and the rest from the provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi.
Shi Fenghua, assistant to the general manager of China Railway Container Transport's Zhengzhou branch, said local traders used to transport their goods by road to ports in Liangyungang in Jiangsu or Qingdao in Shandong and then ship them overseas before the rail line came into operation. "We expect the majority of them will turn to the railroad in future for its efficiency and convenience," Shi said.
The bureau charges 15,200 yuan (HK$19,200) to transport a single container to the Alataw Pass. Customers have to pay separately for the remainder of the journey, from Xinjiang to Hamburg.
There would be 14 such trains to Germany this year, the Zhengzhou Daily newspaper reported.
In addition to the route from Zhengzhou to Hamburg, the bureau has opened three branch lines from the mainland city to Moscow, Klaipeda in Lithuania and Almaty in Kazakhstan.