Multinationals operating in China have been setting up factories deep in the interior in search of affordable labor. These plants can be more than a thousand kilometers (621 miles) from the coast. For companies exporting to Europe—still one of the largest markets for Chinese goods—shipping by air from Chongqing or other inland cities is too expensive. Trucking or carrying goods by train to the ports of Shanghai or Shenzhen’s Yantian and then shipping them to Western Europe can take 40 days.
There’s an alternative; an “international freight-train network” linking China to Europe. It starts in Chongqing and traverses Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland before reaching Duisburg, Germany. A separate line from China’s northeast links up with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs 9,288 km from Vladivostok to Moscow.
Shipping one container by train costs about $10,000, one-third the price of air transit. Although the train is about twice the cost of shipping by sea, it takes only 21 days for products from a factory in Chongqing to reach Western Europe by rail. The carbon footprint of rail, meanwhile, is about one-thirtieth that of airfreight.
The Chinese are enthusiastic about the rail connections to Europe. The government is considering financing track construction in its Central Asian neighbors of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Premier Wen Jiabao has referred to the China-Europe rail link as part of a new Silk Road, the land route that connected western China to the eastern Mediterranean for more than a millennium.