Published On: Wed, Mar 13th, 2024

The 7,500-mile direct train line from London to China which most of us can never use | World | News

Train travel is among the most rewarding of all modes of transport, and has inspired many a person to create – be that literature, film, theatre, or music – the list goes on.

The soothing motion of a locomotive’s cast wheels riding along unblemished tracks possesses an ability to calm akin to yoga.

Luckily for train enthusiasts, the world has no shortage of routes, short or long, death-defying or safe as houses, each often catered to the traveller’s needs down to a T.

There are, however, some journeys that though on the surface are appealing have no consideration – or capacity – for passengers.

The Yiwu to London railway line is one of them, a monster route that begins in the very east of China and ends in Britain’s ancient capital.

Faster than a ship and cheaper than a plane, this train is part of China’s New Silk Road Initiative, a vast and ambitious plan to connect the country to the rest of the world, loosely based on the old silk trading routes from East to West.

Up to 34 wagons filled to the brim with the kind of stuff you find in tourist shops around the UK, as well as other goods, travel through eight countries and around 7,500 miles and 16 days before reaching the shores of Britain.

They will have passed through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France, which when written down doesn’t exactly sound that far away but is half a world away.

It’s a misnomer to describe the journey as one single jaunt. A few of the above countries have different rail gauges, meaning a single locomotive and set of wagons can’t actually travel the entire route.

Rather, two breaks of gauge are rolled out: the first from the standard Chinese gauge to the Russian gauge in Kazakhstan, and then back to the standard gauge when crossing from Belarus into Poland.

To facilitate a quick turnaround, the trains go through bogie exchange — a system for operating railway wagons on two or more gauges to overcome differences in track gauge — or have containers transferred to railcars of the correct gauge on arrival.

While this may all sound like a bit of a faff, according to Brunel Shipping, the company which acts as a customs broker for the train, the cost of the Yiwu to London freighter costs 50 percent less than air freight imports from China, and the transit time is 45-50 percent shorter than sea freight, saving between 12-14 days.

From January 2017, the train ran weekly between the two countries, though it is unclear how many journeys are made today given the sanctions imposed on Belarus by the international community.

China’s One Belt, One Road policy, as it is known, is attempting to emulate the ancient route that opened up between East and West as early as 200 BC.

For thousands of years from that point, exotic goods were ferried to and fro, ranging from illicit drugs to things as simple as pottery and good quality chairs.

Of course, no such thing as a railway line operated back then. Rather, traders often travelled by foot, horseback, camel, and ship. Each would pass goods from one town or city to the next, only for yet more merchants and traders to pick those goods up and take them even further. In this sense, the Silk Road appears more as a series of mini-routes rather than one long course.

The journeys weren’t for the faint-hearted, with bandits and shadowy figures lurking across the route. The emergence of caravans saw groups of people band together in trade expeditions to ward off criminals hoping to snatch a slice of the pie.

It wasn’t only goods that were transported. Ideas and cultures traversed the route, religion was disseminated along its invisible lines and disease spread from person to person. Experts believe the Silk Road is probably to blame for the proliferation of the Black Death across Europe in the 14th century and beyond.

Things are slightly different today. Other rail links have opened up between China and Europe, and you’ll as easily find things like British cheese, Spanish ham, and German beer in markets across China as you would in their respective countries.

It’s no secret that China is well on its way to becoming the world’s leading economic superpower. Through rigid planning and a tight grip on economics impossible to perform in a country like the UK, China has dragged itself out of a system largely based on agriculture to to become the world’s biggest exporter in the 21st century.

Though its efforts have stalled post-COVID-19, by 2015, it was the world’s biggest exporter, back then, its export of goods totalled a staggering $2.28trillion (£1.85tn) in 2015. In this sense, the Yiwu to London railway line is yet another episode in China’s bid to rise beyond the stars.

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