It seems like only yesterday that DB Schenker announced a trial rail service to connect China with Europe – an announcement that was met with widespread skepticism. But Schenker’s gamble paid off, and soon other forwarders were scrambling to launch their own China/Europe rail services.
The latest to join the rush is DHL Global Forwarding, But DHL-GF has done it with an interesting twist: the service is not just rail, but an odd combination of modes that sees shipments transfer from rail to sea, back to rail, and then back to sea on its fourteen day journey from Lianyungang to Istanbul.
Likewise, the choice of start and end points is interesting. Lianyungang is on China’s east coast, roughly mid-way between Beijing and Shanghai, and its selection seems reasonable. But unlike many of the other China/Europe rail services, which take a more northerly route through Russia and end in Poland or Germany (Europe’s manufacturing heartland), DHL-GF has chosen a more southerly route, avoiding Russia entirely, and ending in Turkey after passing through just three countries: Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
More about the multimodal nature of the route below, but first we take time out to quote Kelvin Leung, DHL-GF’s Asia Pacific boss, in one of the great understatements of all time: “Negotiating the complex transnational requirements that span the Silk Road Economic Belt is no easy task.”
So, if it is that complicated and difficult, why do it? Because, as DHL-GF says, “The corridor occupies a critical juncture within the Silk Road Economic Belt, part of China’s proposed “One Belt, One Road” initiative which it estimates will generate more than US$2.5 trillion in annual trade within the next ten years.” And since shippers have jumped on the similar China/Europe rail services offered by other forwarders as an alternative to expensive air and slow ocean, DHL-GF undoubtedly saw a fine opportunity.
Now, back to the route itself: After leaving Lianyungang, shipments travel across China to the country’s western border with Kazakhstan (Alashankou on the Chinese side, Dostyk on the Kazak side). Here, the containers clear customs and are transferred from one set of railcars to another, to accommodate the change of rail gauge. From Dostyk, the new train continues west, all the way across Kazakhstan, to the Caspian Sea port of Aktau, where the containers are transferred to ship for a relatively short (360 km) leg across the Caspian to the Azerbaijani port of Baku. After transfer to another train, the containers turn northwest, crossing into Georgia to the Black Sea port of Poti, where they are once again transferred to ship for the final leg across the Black Sea to Istanbul.
After Istanbul, shipments move to their final destination by truck.
If that all sounds complicated and confusing, there is a clever animation on the DHL-GF website that should make it all clear – just click on the little magnifying glass that appears on the illustration similar to the one above, and you can watch your containers move from rail to sea as they cross Asia.