Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Silk Road' railways link Europe and Asia

By Eoghan Macguire and Becky Anderson, CNN
updated 5:23 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
Bustling freight trains like this 41-carriage vehicle are a common site along the Chongqing to Duisburg rail route -- a modern "Silk Road" carrying goods from Asia to Europe and back again. Bustling freight trains like this 41-carriage vehicle are a common site along the Chongqing to Duisburg rail route -- a modern "Silk Road" carrying goods from Asia to Europe and back again.
Chongqing Express
All aboard!
The new Silk Road?
Changing gauges
Trans-Siberian Express
Out in the open
  • A vast rail network links Chongqing in China to Duisburg in Germany
  • The network has echoes of the famous Silk Road trading route
  • The railway goes through China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany

The Gateway goes behind the scenes of the world's major transport hubs, revealing the logistics that keep goods and people moving.

(CNN) -- In the smoggy cradle of China's industrial heartland, a heaving freight train gets set to depart along a modern incarnation of the legendary Silk Road trading route.

This historic passageway was once worn into a dense chain of dusty trails by caravans of horses and camels carrying merchants and their many wares between continental Asia and Europe.

Today it takes the form of a series of transnational rail tracks transporting the latest in electronic products and computer parts.

The new Silk Road?  The new Silk Road?
The new Silk Road?The new Silk Road?

Starting in the bustling mega city of Chongqing, southwest China, the 11,179-kilometer (6,946-mile) network stretches across six countries and vast unpopulated expanses all the way to Duisburg, Germany.

See also: Could drones replace highways

"The railway (goes) through Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany and builds a new route for transportation," explained Dr Mu Huaping of the Chongqing Commission of Economy and Information Technology.

"If (the city) wants to go global, the railway serves an important role," Mu added.

A freight-train departs Chongqing, China.

Chongqing rising

For many companies with factories in fast-growing Chongqing, transferring items via rail to markets in Europe can be easier and quicker than sea freight from one of China's coastal ports.

Mu points out that train journeys take just 16 days, comparing favorably to the more lengthy shipping routes where the costs and time of transporting cargo to the coast must also be added.

Since the rail network opened in 2011 (as a joint venture between track operator DB Schenker, the Chongqing Holding Group and the state railways of China, Kazakhstan and Russia) an increasing number of multinationals have taken advantage of the facility, Mu said.

An epic journey for Chinese exports
Freight train crosses landlocked country

U.S. computer giant Hewlett Packard claims to have shipped more than 4 million notebook computers to Europe by train during this period.

As more industry heads towards China's vast interior -- and cities like Chongqing expand, creating greater wealth and consumer spending power -- many observers believe rail freight will become an even more appealing cargo-transport option.

See also: 7 of the most entertaining airports

"I think it's a very bright future for freight rail transport," said Michael Binyon, a British journalist who has written extensively on the subject of what he tentatively refers to as the "Iron Silk Road."

"It's the only way to avoid the long sea routes. Airplanes are very expensive (and) road is out of the question (because) the volumes are too small."

"Rail transportation," he added can be "a very efficient way, and a fairly fast way, of moving large volumes of freight from China to Europe."

A freight train in rural Kazakhstan

Continental shift

While this contemporary route (which plots a more northern course than its historic Silk Road counterpart) has been in operation for two years now, rail routes between Asia and Europe are far from a new development.

The Trans-Siberian Railway has been shifting goods and passengers between Moscow and Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific coast for just under a century, linking up with tracks in northern China and Mongolia along the way.

(Trains) are a relatively green and sustainable mode of transport and can take vast loads with just a couple of people driving a train
Christian Wolmar, railway historian

In time, Binyon sees the potential for even more rail integration between the continents.

He points to the Marmaray tunnel project (due to open later this year) that will marry tracks underneath the Bosphorous Strait, connecting Asiatic and European Turkey in the process.

See also: 8 amazing transport projects

Organizations like the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia (UNESCAP) meanwhile have long sought to facilitate a vast Trans-Asian Railway network that could link the continents.

This intergovernmental project has the backing of 22 Asian nations and proposes lines that would connect Thailand, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to southern Europe, as well as a Southeast Asian network that could theoretically extend all the way from Singapore to Europe via China.

A north-south corridor stretching from Russia through Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all the way to the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas in Iran is also cited by the U.N. group as a possibility.

A train sets off from the Kazakh border

Keeping track

When it comes to actually building these lines, however, the reality is infinitely more complex than simply plotting the routes and laying down tracks -- as the UNESCAP project has discovered since it was agreed in 2006.

According to Christian Wolmar, a rail historian and author of the forthcoming book "To the Edge of the World," all manner of operational challenges must first be overcome.

"Individual countries tend to use different styles, technologies, signaling systems and gauges," Wolmar explained. "That means creating a link across several nations is problematic ... and incredibly expensive."

"Then there is also the politics. Can you go through northern Turkey or Iraq or Iran?

"But that's not to say they (trains) don't have benefits. There is fantastic potential as they are a relatively green and sustainable mode of transport and can take vast loads with just a couple of people driving a train," he added.

See also: Where is the world's best airport?

Binyon also notes these difficulties but concurs with Wolmar's final point.

He highlights how the Chongqing to Duisburg route has already overcome some of the standardization challenges by having cargo containers transferred to cars with new gauges at relevant border crossings to meet varying national track requirements.

"If you can simplify it, if you can unify customs agreements and if you can have a standard operating system with rules agreed by all those along the route," he said, then railways are "an extremely efficient way of moving large numbers of people and freight from one population center to the other."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
What will the airport of the tomorrow look like? We've compiled some of the most exciting projects in an interactive feature.
updated 7:05 AM EST, Wed November 20, 2013
In the sleepy seaside town of Mariel, northwest Cuba, a hulking monument to the communist islands' evolving economy is taking shape.
updated 8:53 AM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
Meet Russian Tugboat captain, Viktor Nikolsky, who has sailed the world's seas and survived being hijacked by Somali pirates.
updated 5:39 AM EST, Fri November 8, 2013
A high exposure photograph of a drawbridge in St Petersburg, Russia.
Meet Sergey Matveev and family, St Petersburg's "First Family" of drawbridge operators.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu October 31, 2013
Where are the world's most dangerous waters? Hint; they're not off the coast of Somalia.
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Thu October 17, 2013
Train and metro stations have become unlikely havens for some of the most exquisite architecture and design. We profile some of the best.
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Wed October 9, 2013
Rubber ducks float upon the Suchitlan lake in Suchitoto, 47kms east from San Salvador in October, 2007.
What have 29,000 plastic toys that fell overboard a cargo ship in 1992 been doing for the last 21 years?
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Fri October 4, 2013
A yacht sails behind a giant Maersk cargo ship at the port of Felixstowe, England.
How are ports adapting to cope with the new generation of giant cargo ships?
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
London, Beijing or somewhere in the United States: Where is the world's busiest airport? Find out in our detailed infographic.
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
A ropeway hangs above the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.
Urban gondolas are offering cheap and effective methods of mass-transportation in some of South America's biggest cities.
updated 5:23 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
The Silk Road was once a series of dusty trails forged by traders traveling between Asia and Europe. Today it takes the form of a bustling railway.
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
An all new class of container ship, the Triple E is a quarter-of-a-mile long and built from enough steel to construct 8 Eiffel Towers.
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
Crossrail construction workers stand near to one of the 1,000 tonne tunnel boring machines during a photocall to mark the breakthrough into the Canary Wharf station box in London's docklands area on May 31, 2013.
Take a peek at some of the most exciting travel infrastructure projects currently in the works around the world.