Green rail? Shipping from China to London

China Railways HXD3 electric locomotive in Luoyang, Henan, China China Railways HXD3 electric locomotive in Luoyang, Henan, China beibaoke/Shutterstock
06 Jan
2017
Could rail be the sustainable long-distance freight transport the world needs?

This week, a China Railways freight train left the station in Yiwu, a small near-coastal city in southeast China. Its final destination: Barking, east London. Over two weeks it will cross through Kazakhstan, Russia and across Europe, and is set to arrive in London on 18 January.

In recent years, the so-called new Chinese ‘Silk Road’ has seen increased freight traffic across the Eurasian landmass as Chinese manufacturers seek faster and cheaper ways to transport their products to the European market. Cities such as Madrid and Duisburg have already seen multiple trains arrive, stocked full of clothes, shoes and other consumer goods. London becomes the 15th European city to be connected to this network.

‘The rail services have taken off quite considerably in the last three or four years from China to mainland Europe,’ says Dr Allan Woodburn, Principal Lecturer in Freight and Logistics at the University of Westminster. ‘There are some complexities in terms of the cross-borders transits, the paperwork, track gauges, and locomotive and driver systems. But they seem to have done a reasonable job in overcoming them.’

You’ve got a theoretical possibility at least of carbon neutrality for the rail operation, which you don’t have for the alternative modes

While both manufacturers and retailers (and, indeed, impatient consumers) may prefer the increased ability to ship freight via rail given that it is reportedly twice as fast as sea shipping and half the cost of air freight, one factor which has received somewhat less coverage has been what the environmental impacts of rail freight could be. Both aviation and shipping constitute small but rapidly growing sources of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

‘It’s quite a difficult one to quantify because it depends so much on the assumptions that are made relating to the different characteristics of the different modes of transport,’ explains Woodburn. Initially, it is fairly straight-forward to say that rail freight creates lower emissions than aviation, by a factor of 50 he estimates. With shipping, however, it is considerably harder to generalise.

‘Really it depends on the mix of consignments that the freight train is carrying and how they would have travelled before, or how they would travel if the rail service wasn’t provided,’ explains Woodburn. ‘Assuming at least some of it is a transfer from air, or it’s taking away demand from air, then there should be a net benefit from the rail service. If it was a direct replacement from ship to rail then it would be much harder. You’d need much more information about the specific characteristics.’

Details matter. Woodburn explains that UK government conversion factor guidelines for transport greenhouse gas emissions states rail to be twice as polluting when emitting greenhouse gases than shipping, in terms of tonne-kilometre (the universal measure of goods transport which represents the transport of one tonne over one kilometre). However, since the shortest shipping route to London is as much as two-thirds longer than the rail route, that closes the gap considerably. ‘That’s the majority of those benefits wiped out immediately,’ adds Woodburn.

china railway yiwu to london route mapChina overland rail freight routes to Europe (Image: China Railways)

Furthermore, all of the above depends on the assumption that traditional fossil fuels will be powering these freight trains. However, the electrification of this infrastructure – which Woodburn believes could easily be the case across Western Europe and Russia, as well as potentially in China – means that there is the opportunity to power this mode of transport with either wind, solar or nuclear power.

‘That’s where rail has the clear benefit with current technologies over shipping and air cargo,’ observes Woodburn. ‘It depends on how the electricity is generated, but you’ve got the possibility of generating that from renewable sources. Even if it’s from fossil fuels at the moment, in five or ten years time it may well be from renewable sources. You’ve got a theoretical possibility at least of carbon neutrality for the rail operation, which you don’t have for the alternative modes.’

He also points out that an ongoing trend in China is for manufacturing to be increasingly moved inland, as rising rents and wage costs make production more expensive around the coast, near to the country’s ports. A knock-on impact of this could fall in favour of rail travel since it means a shorter rail journey and a longer route to actually get products to the country’s ports before shipping them.

While Woodburn doesn’t see rail becoming a significant mainstream replacement to shipping, the transportation of goods from inland Chinese factories on renewably-powered, electrified freight trains could – one day – make rail the sustainable long-distance freight transport the world needs.


For more great content like this, sign up below for our FREE weekly newsletter. The best of Geographical in your inbox, every Friday afternoon!

 
 
 

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Get the best stories from Geographical delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

This winter has seen frequent storms and flooding hitting many…

Wildlife

The bison, Poland’s symbol of nature conservation, already faces controversial…

Wildlife

Wolves have arrived at a wildlife park in Devon as…

Climate

An unassuming beach in Denmark is absorbing record-breaking levels of…

Energy

The environmental cost of military activities is significant. Could new…

Wildlife

Latest figures suggest that there are more than twice as…

Tectonics

How does the proposed allocation of ‘Zealandia’ as an independent…

Wildlife

Is extinction forever? While most would assume that yes, extinction…

Geophoto

Wide-angle photography is perhaps the best way to recreate the…

Wildlife

New book aims to follow in the success of last…

Wildlife

With Queensland koala numbers in free-fall, a novel idea suggests…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Tectonics

Fears that volcano eruptions in Iceland are set to regularly…

Oceans

Now we can all experience diving to the deepest point…

Wildlife

The new President of the United States has a namesake…

Geophoto

17,000 photographs from over 50 countries have been whittled down…

Wildlife

Red squirrels are found to be afflicted with a stubborn…

Polar

The toll, as a response to melting sea ice, would…

Climate

Could rail be the sustainable long-distance freight transport the world…

Energy

Abandoned oil and gas wells in the US are leaking significant…