Russia is mulling extending its wide-gauge railroad track to Vienna as part of a plan for a Eurasian land bridge between China and Europe targeted at cargo that currently travels on container ships.
Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad already hauls containers on the route but it has failed to meet expectations and more than 95 percent of Europe-Asia container traffic is currently shipped by sea.
A major problem for rail freight transiting Russia is the extra cost and time involved in switching from its 1,520 millimeter gauge to the narrower 1,485 mm gauge in Europe and China.
Russian Railways says extending its wide-gauge track to Vienna would enable containers from China to move into the road, rail and inland waterway network in Central Europe.
Extending Russia’s rail track into Europe would take at least a decade and cost several billion dollars.
The European Union lent it support to the plan at a recent conference attended by high-level European, Russian and South East Asian transport officials and rail executives, but it pressed Moscow to remove barriers slowing the growth of European rail freight across Russia.
Rail freight traffic between the EU and its Eastern trading partners is expected to soar by over 30 percent between 2007 and 2020, European Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas told the conference in the Russian seaside resort of Sochi.
“More and better connections are needed and so is a strong cooperation with Russia, the third most important trading partner of the EU.”
“Russia might also become a major transit country between the EU and China in the wake of the Eurasian land bridge … but we still need to solve important issues.”
China’s rapid export growth has brought some of its east coast ports to saturation point, while others are too shallow for larger container ships and have limited internal connections, Kallas said. New Chinese industries are moving westward “and a little closer to Europe.”
Rail companies have recently launched successful Europe-China services from the ports of Hamburg and Antwerp, but “there is still a long way to go” before rail can offer a real alternative to maritime transport, particularly in quality of service, price and speed.
A major problem is the discriminatory fees levied by Russia and other Central Asian countries on international rail freight that leaves, enters or transits their territory.
“We expect these fees to be phased out as part of Russia’s WTO [World Trade Organization] accession,” Kallas said.
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