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

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

Target Ovarian Cancer

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

  • The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    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...

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...

Oceans

The effect of plastics on the world’s oceans is posing…

Geophoto

Camera technology may have come a long way since the…

Energy

The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn…

Wildlife

Despite their high profiles, most of the world’s national animal…

Oceans

Asian countries are pledging to reduce the amount of land-based…

Geophoto

There’s a world of visual wonder beneath the waves but…

Energy

A short, summer eclipse in America has solar power generators…

Climate

A dramatic increase in dust storms across the western United…

Climate

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

Climate

A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of…

Wildlife

It’s not just the bees that are disappearing. Insects across…

Oceans

Far beneath the waves, a race is unfolding to claim…

Climate

Compared to other types of carbon sink, seagrass in Kenya…

Geophoto

Who in their right mind wants to shoot with film…

Climate

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

Geophoto

Calling photographers passionate about capturing and sharing great images of…

Climate

Five experts weigh-in on the future of the Paris Agreement…

Oceans

Analysis into a killer whale found dead off the shores…

Geophoto

For the past ten years, the Chartered Institution of Water…

Geophoto

Less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, so it…