Rail Versus Maritime Along the Silk Road

file photo

Published May 21, 2017 12:53 AM by Harry Valentine

While maritime transportation involving either bulk freight or container freight involves lower transportation costs than railway transportation, railways offer faster delivery times. Competitive delivery duration has motivated China to encourage the development of a new Silk (Rail) Road linking China to distant markets located to the west of China.

Silk Road Train

Over the past five months, a freight train undertook a return journey between China and the U.K. Due to differences in railway gauges, cranes switched containers between trains that operate along different gauges on the journey between Western Europe and China. 

Over the past five years, China helped in the development of a single-gauge railway line between China and Iran. That railway line passes to the north of both Pakistan and Afghanistan and was developed at a time when discussions were underway in North Africa about connecting a standard gauge railway line between Cairo and Casablanca.

The main advantage of railway transportation is that it offers faster delivery times than maritime transportation, at many times the transportation cost. For low-priority shipments, maritime offers the lowest transportation measured on both per cubic unit and per unit weight basis. 

Political upheavals in Egypt and Libya have delayed plans to develop a railway line between Casablanca and Cairo. During this period, the government of Saudi Arabia initiated plans to develop and upgrade their railway network. Railways in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia share a common railway gauge offering the prospect of a future connection.

Trade and Religion

The future prospect of a trans-North African Railway linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Suez could motivate China to encourage the development of such a link and it extend it to the Gulf of Aqaba. Saudi Arabia may even be supportive of a railway link across North Africa that could connect to Aqaba as it could connect to a possible future railway line that extends south toward Jeddah, following the old Hejaz Railway line. During the time of the Haj, such a railway line could carry Muslim pilgrims from locations across North Africa to Mecca. 

In the interest of faster delivery times involving trade, China may wish to encourage development of a standard gauge railway line between Aqaba and Iran, either through Jordan and Iraq or through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. A direct railway line between China and Casablanca could carry high-priority freight destined for the eastern U.S., with smaller ships carrying the freight across the North Atlantic from a port in north western Morocco. Such ships could sail into several east coast American ports that can only berth smaller vessels and also sail inland along the St Lawrence Seaway.

African Railway Initiatives

Several East African railways that include Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are undertaking plans to widen their railway gauge to the international gauge. There have been earlier discussions to link a railway line across the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran either by building a bridge of by drilling a tunnel. 

A few years ago, a Saudi Arabian engineering and construction company proposed to build a bridge across the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, between Yemen and Djibouti. However, civil strife in Yemen promises to delay progress on such an initiative, perhaps by several years.

There have been discussions in Africa about a possible future standard gauge railway line linking the port cities of Mombasa and Lagos. Such a railway link would definitely offer very competitive delivery times against maritime transportation between such ports as Lagos and Mumbai or Lagos and Singapore. It would bypass the extended sea voyage via the southern tip of Africa. At the present time, Nigeria is one of two African nations that have eclipsed South Africa as Africa’s leading economy. To the west of Nigeria, Ghana is also a vibrant African economy. 

Ports of Suez and Aqaba

A Silk Road railway line between the Atlantic and China will pass through or pass by the Port of Suez as well as the Port of Aqaba. There will be a need at or near both locations to build either a high level bridge or a railway tunnel. Road bridges already cross over the Suez Canal at three locations, with sufficient air draft (vertical clearance) to transit mega-size container ships. A railway link between the Egyptian Sinai and Jordan would likely require either a 12 kilometer (seven mile) undersea railway tunnel or a 12 kilometer bridge with a high-level central section to transit mega-size ships.

An east-west railway line across northern Saudi Arabia would link the Gulf Emirates such as Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Sharjah to North Africa and with the prospect of providing significantly faster travel duration than ships that will sail via the Suez Canal, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz. Such an east-west railway line could also be extended to Tehran and the railway line to China. The combination of interest in a Trans North African railway lien as well as intercity railway development in the Arabian Peninsula could assist in the development of a new rail Silk Road.

Competition and Market Precedents

There are many parallel maritime and railway transportation links around the world, sometimes with railway offering a more direct link and maritime still maintaining market share due to significantly lower transportation costs. Despite the presence of competing railway links, viable coastal maritime services operate around India, the U.S. and Brazil as well as along numerous inland waterways. 

While plans are underway to develop hyperlink transportation, such technology will initially operate between very large markets such as Shanghai – Hong Kong and possibly Hong Kong – Singapore. Container air freight is another possible technology that will serve a unique market niche.

American precedent has revealed that an east coast market that seeks faster delivery of containers from China. Ships carry the containers to west coast ports and the railways carry the containers to the east coast. The voyage via the Panama Canal offers lower transportation cost per container plus an additional four to five days of time in transit. 

A Silk Road train that links China to the Atlantic that interlines with north Atlantic ships could reduce time in transit for higher priority, east coast American bound containers. That same link would also serve North African and some Western European markets.


Precedent suggests that while maritime and railway transportation may operate along parallel routes linking the same pairs of cities, the two modes serve distinctly different market niches. China’s initiative to re-open the Great Silk Road using railway technology provides service to a segment of the container transportation market that seeks to reduce time in transit, despite higher transportation costs. A possible future railway link between the Atlantic Ocean and China could be built to serve trains carrying double-stacked containers. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.