Arctic alternative to the Silk Road gaining ground
China sees great potential in intermodal route Polar Silk Road as an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative via the Northern Sea route
The Polar Silk Road is another route of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a Nordic extension and China would like to cooperate with Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark to explore it.
In fact Bejing sees great potential in an intermodal route connecting the Arctic to the New Silk Road, it was revealed; the so-called Polar Silk Road actually is an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative via the Northern Sea route and will be facilitated by a rail freight line connecting the Arctic to the south of Finland, since infrastructures in the Arctic cities of Norway lag far behind compared to the south of Norway and Finland.
The Northern Sea Route, a shipping route running along the Russian Arctic coast from Kara Sea, along Siberia, to Bering Strait, lies in Arctic waters, previously inaccessible due to the large amount of ice, although now, due to climate change, passage of ships on a regular basis is possible; in 2017 a Russian tanker travelled through the Northern Sea Route without an icebreaker escort for the first time so that it is possible to sail from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, 30% faster than through the Suez Canal.
Chinese ice-breaker Xuelong sailed the north-east passage in 2012 and an ice-breaking vessel sailed the transpolar and north-west passage in 2017; COSCO operated the Yong Sheng on the Northern Sea Route three times carrying construction materials. Also China was actively involved in the development of the port of Sabetta and the New Silk Road Fund holds a share in the LNG project.
Commercial operations on the Northern Sea Route are now in full swing especially on the western part connecting the ports of Murmansk and Sabetta; cargo volumes reached a record-breaking 7.3 million tonnes in 2016, a +35% growth facilitated by the construction of the port of Sabetta and the LNG project, that includes a LNG plant at Yamal Peninsula. Volumes on the Northern Sea Route are estimated to reach 40 million tonnes in 2022.
The ice-free Norwegian port of Kirkenes has the potential to become a gateway linking the Northern Sea Route to European railways if connected to northern Finnish town of Rovaniemi, as it is already planned to be completed in 2030. Finland has considered linking the railway to the undersea railtunnel due to be constructed between Finland and Estonia so tolink to Rail Baltica, a direct train connection to Warsaw, Poland.
Rail freight transport boosts along BRI
New initiatives from UTLC, RZD, DB Cargo and CH Robinson
Rail freight volumes handled by United Transport and Logistics Company Eurasian Railway Alliance JSC (UTLC) - a joint company of Russian Railways OJSC, Belarusian Railways GO and Kazakhstan Temir Zholy NK JSC - on the New Silk Road increased by 30% in first quarter of 2018, with a most notable increase in eastbound traffic(+43%). Overall traffic volumes handled amounted to 40,300 TEUs; westbound rail freight still represents the majority with 24,100 TEUs (+27%)
“We continue to scale up the transportation volumes and leverage the new opportunities in the company’s transportation geography expansion; the new route via border passages in Kaliningrad Region show very good technological parameters and greatly expand the throughput of Eurasian railway corridors as it avoids the busy border crossing between Poland and Belarus at Brest” comments Alexey Grom, UTLC President.
In October 2017 first train departed from Łódź in Poland to make its way to Chengdu in China.
Additionally, RZD Logistics and DB Cargo AG will start a joint multimodal container service on the markets of China and Europe, after CEOs Viacheslav Valentik and Uwe Leuschner signed an agreement at International Exhibition for Transport and Logistics Services and Technologies in Moscow that oversees the organization of multimodal service of cargo expedited delivery across the route China – ports of Kaliningrad region – terminals of Europe and in the opposite direction.
At first stage of cooperation the parties will evaluate the possibility of expedited delivery of container cargo across the route China–Mongolia–port Baltiysk–port Rostock–Germany terminals.
Finally multimodal transport and logistics provider C.H. Robinson has launched a new rail freight service on the New Silk Road connecting China to the United Kingdom. The line services 8 cities in China and 8 cities in Europe, with the most western destination being Barking in the UK.
In China, the train services runs through main economic centres of Zhengzhou, Zushou, Wuhan, Yiwu, Xiamen, Shenzen, Guangzhou en Chongqing; in Europe it touches Melaszewicze in Poland, Hamburg and Duisburg in Germany, Milan in Italy, Tilburg in the Netherlands and Lyon en Paris in France, in addition to UK destination. The total journey takes between 18-20 days.