Train on the Silk Road

UK wakes up to New Silk Road trade opportunities

Yiwu to Barking (London) first China - UK New Silk Road Train arrives in London

Despite historical links going back a millennia, Britain has been slow to engage with the New Silk Road. Continental Europe has forged ahead, with dozens of trains every week linking ports and terminals all the way from Finland to Italy with destinations and origins in Asia and China. Yet, in the past few months, a raft of UK operators, forwarders and consolidators have launched new services. All along the Belt and Road, word is … the British are coming.

Well, maybe not exactly just the British. Without fanfare or ceremony, at the end of June, DB Cargo launched a service connecting Cuxhaven and Hamburg with Hefei in China, with the added incentive of a DFDS ferry from Immingham. England, Denmark and Germany collaborating for the sake of trade.

Old habits difficult to break

Britain’s ports, particularly on the East Coast, may be about to encounter a post-Brexit tangle of red tape, but trade will continue regardless. Places like Immingham seem set to benefit. Close to manufacturing centres in the North of England, and avoiding the Channel ports, Immingham is as direct as it gets for connection to Germany and beyond. Point your ship due east, and you would have to be the worst master on the high seas to miss Germany.

Leaving Immingham with Cuxhaven and Hamburg dead ahead (image: Hugh Venables – Geograph Britain and Ireland)

Then again, already loaded, it is a temptation to turn right, squeeze through the busiest shipping lane in the world, and, once safely through the English Channel, it is plain sailing, all the way to Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai. No need to tranship for the train ride across two continents. Island trade inevitably turns to shipping first, and it is a habit the British find hard to break.

Changed attitudes in Britain

However, circumstances in the past five months have helped loosen the desire to set sail. With international shipping getting logistically upset by the pandemic, British traders have been looking again at overland by rail as a viable alternative. Add to that the impending Brexit, and, suddenly, the New Silk Road looks like an option worth exploring.

What a change from just one year ago. Back then, London-based Belt and Road specialist Henry Tillman was preparing to tell the European Silk Road Summit in Venlo that the British were failing to fully exploit the opportunities for overland trade. “Europe has already embraced this opportunity to a far greater extent”, he said. Now, just twelve months on, Britain is waking up to the advantages of transhipping on Europe’s west coast, rather than on China’s east coast. Not only that, but there are emerging markets en route that offer opportunities not readily available via traditional sea routes.

Nunner and Davies Turner enter the market

Despite Brexit, and the seemly interminable trade talks, commercial enterprises on both sides of the Channel have simply got on with the business of doing business. Starting in just two weeks, Nunner, one of the biggest names in Continental logistics, will launch a new intermodal service, connecting London to Amsterdam and directly on to New Silk Road trains bound for the fast-growing industrial hub of Xi’an.

Nunner Silk Road branded intermodal containers

Davies Turner, the Purfleet, London, based forwarder has also just reported record loadings on their consol service, connecting UK customers via Neuss and on to China, competing directly with the DB Cargo route to Immingham. Davies Turner recently boasted a 17-day turnaround, packed to unpacked, claiming a record for the New Silk Road to the UK. That’s three days faster than the promoted schedule by DB Cargo – not that there is any competitive edge between Britain and Germany.

Britain reappraises trade connections

There is debate in the UK as to why more trade does not come overland. Since it was opened in 1994, the Channel Tunnel has always had unused capacity. The regulatory framework has been an issue, but, as Henry Tillman pointed out to last year, government promotion, administrative streamlining and technological harmonisation were all that stood in the way of much fuller utilisation of the trade route under the water.

Last year, Henry Tillman said Britain had not engaged with the opportunities of the New Silk Road, but that may well be changing rapidly

Britain’s important trading partners have, for the past forty-seven years, been much closer to home. When the UK broke trading ties with the Commonwealth of former empire states, the country forged new links with partners in the European Union. However, with global trade resurgent, Britain is looking further afield once again. Ironically, that may well mean doing business with European partners more than ever, at least in the business of rail freight.

European Silk Road Summit in November

It has been over three and  a half years since the first direct China – London train rolled across the New Silk Road. That inertia may finally be taking hold. Partners eager to learn and exchange ideas will be gathering in Amsterdam in November, for the fourth annual European Silk Road Summit (10 &11 November). Around 200 delegates are expected to assemble for discussions around the resilience of the rail freight corridors despite the pandemic. This year, like the talk along the New Silk Road itself, the word at the Summit is … the British are coming.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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