By the time it does pull into Yiwu, the train will have completed an epic journey, chugging 12,000km across nine countries in 18 days, with multiple stops along the way to switch locomotives and trucks to cope with all the changes in railway gauges and signalling systems.
Eastbound marine container rates from Europe to China shot up at the beginning of this month. The week our train left, it cost slightly more than US$1,500 to ship a 40ft container by sea from Europe to China. The cost of sending the same container by rail was quoted at US$2,500, two-thirds more expensive. The cost differential between westbound services was even wider, with sending containers from China to Europe by rail two and a half times more expensive than by sea.
Neither can the rail service be scaled up to the extent that it would rival seaborne freight for economy. A single large container ship can carry 10,000 40ft boxes between Europe and China in five weeks. To shift as many boxes by rail would require 294 of the trains that left London two weeks ago. And to get them all to their destination within five weeks, they would have to leave at intervals of no more than 80 minutes apart constantly for 17 days.