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.
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.