Rail freight between China and Europe is set to double during the next decade as China’s Belt and Road initiative connects the country’s Western Provinces to the transcontinental network, according to Juergen Trojak, a leading Swiss rail engineering expert.
In a broad initiative, China’s Government is planning to connect Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Chongqing, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Qinghai, Gansu, Xinjiang and Guangxi into the main East-West railway from China to Europe via Central Asia.
In addition to expanding the physical rail network in China, one of the main drivers is the growing demand for LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas).
The use of LNG as a fuel for household heating, trucks and public transportation is rising in China as it is considered as a panacea to reducing pollution levels in major cities. Russia is a major producer of LNG, and rail freight will provide direct connections from its gas fields to Chinese cities, according to Trojak.
The advantage LNG has over diesel is in its significantly lower emissions – 25% less CO2, 90% less NOx (Nitrous Oxide), and 0.09% particulate matter and sulphur. The main uses for LNG in the logistics sector will be for shipping, trucking and cold storage.
In Europe, reducing roadside pollution in major urban areas is also a major issue. Last December, Paris, Madrid, and Athens announced an end to diesel-powered cars by 2025. Norway has legislated to phase out conventional cars also in 2025, while France and the UK will follow suit in 2040 and 2050, respectively. In 2017, approximately 250,000 LNG-powered heavy trucks were operating in China out of a total of six million. In Europe, by comparison, in 2018 there were 2,000 registered LNG trucks according to S&P Platts, with plans to increase the number of LNG fuelled trucks to 400,000 trucks by 2030, according to industry group Natural Gas Vehicles Association (NGVA) Europe.
Traditionally, LNG is transported by sea or pipeline, but China lacks a national pipeline network and is currently delivering the gas mainly by road in specially made trucks.
Japan Petroleum Exploration has been shipping LNG by train in Japan since 2000 and claims its method of combining trains and trucks can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% compared to using trucks alone.
An efficient rail freight service would provide quicker transit times for LNG particularly to inland cities in China and Europe and also reduce emissions.