The importance of China’s rail belt

China's future is it's railways

Daniel Leditschke

Development, Economics | Asia, East Asia

14 March 2018

China’s Railway Belt is likely to be far more influential than its maritime silk road in the near future thanks to an easier transition to renewable energy, Daniel Leditschke writes.

It is impossible to live in the modern world without hearing about global warming. While it would be difficult to argue that the whole world is looking to transition entirely to renewable sources – for example see the Australian Government – most of the world is attempting to transition entirely to renewable energy sources in the face of rising temperatures and ecosystem destruction.

This transition will not be quick, with Solomon and Krishna claiming “…it is extremely unlikely … that a global energy supply transition can occur in three decades or less…”, but it has definitely begun. The transition is necessarily slow due to the huge changes that need to occur, not only technologically but also societally to facilitate a renewable world.

One of these changes relates to shipping. The “made in China” marking that you see on many of the products you consume is indicative of a large renewability challenge. Ocean freight accounts for 80-90% of world trade by volume, in container ships powered by fossil fuels. Not only are these ships powered non-renewably, they are also difficult to convert to renewable sources.

Attempts have been made to power cargo ships renewably. Giant fibreglass sail-wings, rotor sails, and kite-sail tethers have been considered, but results are usually a small percentage reduction in fuel use, and these devices add significantly to the danger of a ship capsizing in storms.

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Total fuel conversion to a green biomass would be the easiest way to meet renewable expectations, but this requires the development of significant infrastructure to distribute that biomass. Transitioning to renewably powered cargo ships is difficult.

Trains are much easier to convert to renewable sources. Electric trains already exist, and have for years. Once the electricity grid is renewables-based, and a train line is electrified, every train run on that track can be green.

China’s Belt and Road initiative includes plans for trains shuttling goods from China all the way to Western Europe. Many people fail to see the importance of the train line.

As BBC Reporter Gracie puts it,

“Critics say dragging 50 containers from Yiwu to Europe by train is a poor way to start, observing that rail makes little economic sense when you can easily shift 10,000 containers on a single ship. Even with government subsidies the train costs more than twice as much as sea freight, and is slowed by changes of railway gauge and engine.”

In many respects, these critics are right. Without a shift to a world where energy renewability is key, rail freight seems economically daft.

The key to rail’s success is twofold; the push for renewables must continue to the point where renewability is the all-important factor, and the efficiency of the rail line must be improved, reducing or removing hurdles like changes of gauge and customs inspections. Even though ocean freight cannot be removed entirely – due to the inconvenient existence of islands like Australia – electrified trains could facilitate the remaining cargo ships travelling smaller distances by taking goods from their point of manufacture to the nearest port to their destination.

This distance-minimising strategy isn’t necessary to reach more than half of the world’s population, emphasising the possible strengths of rail transport. What’s more, the belt component of China’s Belt and Road initiative indicates that China is dedicated to growing the existing rail network, ensuring it is as powerful as possible.

This is not the first time China has expanded its logistical networks. As Holslag noted, “With an impressive pace, Chinese roads, railways, and pipelines have penetrated into neighbouring states”. Holslag argues China’s development of this infrastructure was driven by economic self-interest, and the railway belt is no doubt the same. China is clearly aware that by enabling the sale of its goods and the acquisition of foreign materials it strengthens its own economic and political position. The ease through which this can be accomplished with a railway should not be underestimated.

Through the development of rail networks, China not only gains short-term political and economic power, but also places itself in a strong position looking to the future. Global society is undoubtedly in the process of a transition to predominantly renewable energy, and in that transition we must re-assess our dependence on global ocean freight. China is well positioned to step in with a solution for much of the world, continuing to provide its consumer products now transported to the consumer not by fossil-fuel burning cargo ships but by electrified clean rail.

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