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Containers (Lots of) from China

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In issue 86 (December 2011), Rail Engineer reported on the £650 million Russian Railways “Transsib in Seven Days” project to increase the capacity of the Trans-Siberian railway to enable it to carry transit traffic from South East Asia to Europe in seven days. This included providing loops 1.5 kilometres long to accommodate trains of 71 wagons. At the time, the transit traffic over the Trans-Siberian railway was 18,000 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units).

Last year this traffic had risen to 277,000 TEU, partly due to an increase in goods ordered on the internet and traffic to Chinese subsidiaries in Europe.

Much of this was carried on 3,800 block trains running on 48 regular routes between 17 Chinese and 20 European locations. In 2016, there were 1,800 such trains on 19 routes. However, these freight flows are unbalanced with 64 per cent of this traffic being from China to Europe.

Two-thirds of this traffic from China passes through Kazakhstan to Russia, the remainder from northern China is sent via the Trans-Siberian railway. Almost all these trains reach Europe via Brest on the border between Belarus and Poland.

To get a container from Shanghai to Hamburg, would cost around $2,500, $6,000 or $30,000 respectively by sea, rail and air with respective delivery times of around 30, 16 or five days. The higher cost of rail compared with shipping is justified for high-value goods, or those that are part of a manufacturing process.

Strategic Partnership 1520

Rail Engineer regularly reports on the annual 1520 strategic forum held in Sochi each year for Russian gauge railways and their suppliers. In February, this forum was held in Europe for the first time, specifically to consider the issues and opportunities associated with this huge increase in rail traffic. The forum had 57 speakers and 415 participants from 29 countries and was jointly opened by the Austrian and Russian transport ministers.

It was also the first time that this forum had a speaker from the European Union since it imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Keir Fitch is the European Commission’s head of railway safety and interoperability. He was particularly concerned with what happens to these freight flows once they reach the European standard-gauge network which, unlike Russian Railways, cannot accommodate trains that are 1.5km long and does not generally give priority to freight either.

Fitch described the development of the European Traffic Network and Rail Freight Corridors, which will have 740-metre long loops. He also mentioned the interoperability requirements for traffic that used the 1435 and 1520 networks and referred to the harmonisation of approval arrangements when the European Rail Agency becomes Europe’s ‘one stop shop’ for rail vehicle approvals in June 2019.

Changing gauge

A significant bottleneck faced by these container trains is the changes of gauge between 1520mm Russian gauge from and to 1435mm standard gauge as trains cross the Chinese and European borders. There is also the change in loading gauge, although for containers this is not an issue. Trains in Russia can be 5.3 metres high and 3.75 metres wide as compared with the 4.32 metres height and 3.15 metres width specified in Europe to accommodate ISO containers.

To accommodate this change of track gauge, wagons can have their bogies changed or be equipped with sliding wheelsets or can have their loads transhipped onto another train. Sliding wheelsets provide the fastest transit across the gauge change but, for long distance freight, are not economic as they are only used once every few thousand miles.

Containers are generally transhipped. With the right infrastructure, a container can be transferred from one train to another in a matter of minutes. On the Chinese/Kazakhstan border, the new dry port of Khorgos has a gauge-changing station that can handle six trains at a time and process 1,600 TEU per day.

Slovakia has two gauge-changing stations on its border with Ukraine. One, at Dobrá, is for containers and can handle 700 TEU per day. The other, at Matovce, has facilities to transfer bulk cargo and re-pump liquids between trains. This facility can handle seven million tonnes each year in this way and guarantees transhipment within eleven hours.

Due to the current political situation, little container traffic passes from Russia through Ukraine, which has gauge-changing stations at its borders with Hungary and Romania, in addition to those in Slovakia. As a result, almost all container trains between China and Europe are routed through Belarus and its gauge changing station at Brest.

With such a large volume of traffic passing through a single point, there is a need for alternative routes to Europe, as was shown last summer when disruption on the Polish network caused significant delays. This resulted in the opening up of an alternative route through Kaliningrad, as described later.

1520 to Vienna

In 2008, Russian Railways, along with Austrian, Slovakian and Ukrainian railways, created a joint venture, Breitspur Planungsgesellschaft, to extend the 1520mm gauge line from Kosice in Slovakia for about 400 kilometres to Bratislava and Vienna. This would enable container trains from China to run through Russia, Ukraine and Slovakia to logistics hubs in Bratislava and Vienna without a change of gauge.

The company produced a feasibility study report in 2017. This concluded that an electrified single line railway, with a maximum speed of 100km/h and that had twelve seven-kilometre long passing loops, was required. This would require 377 bridges, including one over the Danube, and 19 tunnels totalling 43 kilometres. Its estimated construction cost was €6.5 billion.

The estimated transport volumes in 2050 on this broad-gauge line were between 16 and 25 million tonnes. The feasibility study also identified significant economic benefits for the four countries concerned.

Joint efforts to connect the Vienna-Bratislava region to the Russian broad-gauge network were part of an agreement signed at the strategic forum by the respective CEOs of Russian and Austrian railways, Oleg Belozerov and Andreas Matthä, in the presence of the two country’s transport ministers. This agreement also concerned cooperation with current freight and passenger services.

At the forum, Austrian Transport Minister, Norbert Hofer advised that an environmental impact assessment for this new broad gauge will be carried out jointly with Slovakia, and that the final planning phase will begin soon. This could enable construction to start in 2024, with opening of the line envisaged in 2033.

As Ukraine regards its rebel-held eastern areas to be “temporarily occupied by Russia”, it was perhaps not surprising that it was not represented at the forum and was barely mentioned at it. Nevertheless, Ukraine is still part of the Breitspur Planungsgesellschaft joint venture and is essential to the success of the ‘Russian gauge to Vienna’ project. It would seem that the view is that much will have changed by its completion in 2033.

Bureaucratic bottlenecks

Much has been invested in rolling stock, terminals and rail infrastructure to ensure a reliable service and speed up this transit traffic, which now travels around 1,000 kilometres per day. Yet there are still some delays at borders. Many speakers focussed on the need for common consignment notes, tamper-proof containers, unified Eurasian transport legislation and simplified customs clearance. The need for electronic consignment notes and customs documentation was also stressed.

However, the creation of a customs union between Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus in 2011 has helped create frictionless borders between these countries which, for transit traffic, is an aim endorsed by all speakers.

One constraint arising from the rapid increase in traffic is a shortage of container flat cars. Alexander Panchenko of the Summa Group called for a subsidised programme of flatcar construction in Russia. He pointed out that, otherwise, it was unlikely that sufficient flatcars would be available as there was not the required certainty of income due to the Chinese subsidy of this traffic.

A geography lesson

In addition to Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Slovakia, various other countries straddle different routes for rail freight between China and Europe as shown by various presentations at the forum, which offered an interesting geography lesson.

The deputy chairman of Azerbaijan Railways gave a presentation showing how his 2,900km 1520mm-gauge network was now part of the Trans-Caspian corridor from China to Europe via Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea. The route then follows a new 849km rail corridor, completed in October, through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and southern Europe. This has a gauge change station at the border between Georgia and Turkey and required the construction of 110 kilometres of standard gauge line into Turkey.

By 2021, with the completion of a 164km section of railway in northern Iran, Azerbaijan will also be on a North-South railway route that will take traffic from India via Iran’s Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas to Russia and northern Europe. This will provide a shorter route than the current one through Turkmenistan.

Mantas Bartuška, director general of Lithuanian Railways, explained how the country’s Baltic port of Klaipeda could tranship traffic off 1520mm gauge railways to ships for short sea voyages to northern European ports such as Hamburg and Rotterdam.

The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad also has a Baltic port and is bordered by Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. It offers a rail route to Europe from Russia via Latvia and Lithuania, as an alternative to the one through Belarus, and was first used in September by a train from Łódź in Poland to Chengdu in China. In his presentation Ivan Besedin, head of the Kaliningrad Centre for Commercial Transport Services, explained how Kaliningrad’s gauge-changing station was being enhanced to develop this traffic to provide an alternative to Brest. He also advised how Kaliningrad also offered a useful sea route to northern European ports.

Austria’s railways

For Austrian Railways, the forum was an opportunity to showcase its capabilities and stress its potential, which includes the proposed Russian gauge line to Vienna. With a network of 4,826 kilometres, Austria’s railway is about a third the size of Britain’s railways, yet it carries 38 per cent more freight.

Austria currently has two major railway projects. The 130km Koralm high-speed railway between Klagenfurt and Graz, which includes a 33km tunnel, is a €5.4 billion project which is expected to be operational in 2023. In addition, €3.3 billion is being spent on the 27km Semmering base tunnel, on which work started in 2014. This is expected to be completed in 2024 when it will by-pass the line between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag – part of the Baltic to Adriatic corridor that, when opened in 1854, was the first line over the Alps.

Christian Helmenstein, chief economist of the Federation of Austrian Industries, explained the vital contribution of the country’s rail industry. With exports to the value of €1.3 billion, the country ranks fifth in the export of railway vehicles and associated equipment, in which it has a 5.1 per cent worldwide share compared with 0.9 per cent for all goods. Its rail industry stimulates an added value of two billion euros, which is 0.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

He also described various studies that showed the microeconomic impact of Austria’s railways, which included stimulation of new businesses and added value from journey time savings.

One belt, one road

This perhaps-confusing phrase was used many times during the forum. It is the development strategy proposed by the Chinese government for cooperation and connectivity between Eurasian countries.

Russian Railways CEO Oleg Belozerov considered that this new silk road could be carrying three million TEU by 2040, a six-fold increase on the current level of traffic. Hence there is a need for significant investment and an innovative approach to provide the capacity for this traffic.

First deputy CEO of Russian Railways Alexander Misharin described how its trade routes will connect five billion people, or seventy per cent of the world’s population, and how this had enormous potential for economic growth.

He described how the internet was one factor driving this growth with the volume of e-commerce expected to be 4.5 trillion US dollars by 2021. A characteristic of e-commerce is the customers’ expectation that delivery will be in a matter of days. It also often involves high-value goods with significant frozen capital during transportation. For these reasons, if rail is to be competitive, speed of delivery is essential. Hence much of this traffic is carried by air even though this is five times the cost of rail transport.

To satisfy this demand, Misharin explained the concept of HSR Eurasia. This would be a high-speed freight-passenger railway corridor that would connect the existing European and Chinese high-speed networks. This ten-thousand-kilometre route would pass through Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and China, the first part of which is the proposed 762-kilometre Russian high-speed line between Moscow and Kazan. He forecast that, by 2050, this could be carrying 12 million tonnes of freight and 58 million passengers.

Misharin felt the HSR Eurasia would provide a huge boost to the local economies along its route. This is certainly an ambitious vision but, given the ever-increasing trade with China and the way that the Chinese have built their 22,000 kilometres of high-speed line in just over ten years, it is not unrealistic.

His vision was just one aspect of a fascinating forum that showed how the ever-increasing rail traffic between China and Europe will require significant changes to all the railways that carry it.

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David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. HSR Eurasia: Presumably this will be standard gauge – or the passengers and freight will have to be transshipped twice – hardly a “high-speed” line. Or is Russia going to stick to 1520mm?


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