First direct freight train from China arrives in London: towards the new Silk Road

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China-Russia railroad by Jack No1 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

February 2017

The first direct train from China to the UK recently rolled in to its destination in London’s Barking terminal after a 16 day journey of 7,500 miles. The freight train travelled through nine countries from Yiwu in the east of China all the way to London, via Kazakhstan, Russia and on through Europe and the Channel Tunnel. This historic journey makes London now the fifteenth European city to be linked to China by rail, and it is being hailed as part of a new ‘Silk Road’ across Eurasia. The rail line forms part of the multi-billion dollar Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’[1]  transport infrastructure project which aims to revive the old Silk Road network of land and sea routes in order to expand trade and cooperation between China and countries across Europe, Asia and Africa.[2] 

The old ‘Silk Road’ was a vast network of trade routes winding overland across Eurasia and by sea throughout the South China seas, Indian Ocean and into the Mediterranean. These networks also formed  a huge and influential web of cultural exchange: ideas, skills, knowledge and religions travelled the old Silk Roads as much as spices and silks, carried by trades people, religious travellers and diplomats. The modern-day ‘Silk Road’ project involves investment in transport infrastructure, such as ports, rail lines and highways, as well as other means of development collaboration and deepening of diplomatic ties with the nations along those routes. Although the routes of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ will be mainly for freight,  cultural exchange will also take place in the form of Chinese-sponsored cultural events, educational programmes and tourist travel (including cruise ships on the maritime lanes created).[3]  As part of the project China has already invested $1.4 billion in building the “Colombo Port City” in Sri Lanka[4]  and in 2014 China signed agreements to upgrade the Maldives’ airport and to build a bridge to connect the airport to the capital Male. The bridge, currently under construction, has been named the Chinese-Maldives Friendship Bridge, illustrating the sorts of diplomatic as well as trade benefits that can be gained from the project.  In all, China plans to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure and associated projects connected to the ‘One Belt, One Road’ vision.

According to a recent article published by Chatham House, the expanded transport links are intended “to promote development of western China, but if successful, they should also help to transform economic relations across large parts of Eurasia. In geopolitical terms, they will expand China’s shadow over regions of the world where hitherto its presence has been relatively modest. They should strengthen links with Europe, as well as with other countries along the routes, to counterbalance potentially conflictual relations with the US.”[5]

The ‘One Belt, One Road’ project is not without its critics. Some fear the widening of China’s economic and cultural influence as well as the possibility that the ports developed for the project could later be used for military purposes. As has been seen throughout global history, the expansion of trade routes brings with it the promise of economic and cultural benefits, and through these the strengthening of relations and understanding between peoples, but it may also bring the threat of potential future conflicts.[6]

Trade has been a key motivation for human travel for thousands of years and, although in the modern world the movement of cargo no longer entails the movement of people in large numbers as it once did, people still travel in great – and increasing – numbers in the pursuit of business. The World Tourism Organization estimates that around 14% of all international tourist journeys (i.e. around 160 million per year) are made by those travelling for the purpose of business.[7]

With the revitalization of the ancient Silk Road trade routes, it seems likely that the opportunity and appetite for human travel between those locations will also increase, whether that travel be for business and trade, for education or leisure. Understanding such links between trade and travel is of crucial importance in managing and planning for the future. The Independent Transport Commission has set up the Why Travel? project to explore the complexity of human travel motivations, including the links between trade and travel. The ultimate goal is that this deeper understanding will help us to make better decisions in future regarding human travel and transport, and the myriad areas of human life which travel touches on. The project brings together experts from across the arts, humanities and sciences, exploring cutting-edge research and modern trends, as well as looking back into our evolutionary past and human history for insights into why we travel in the ways we do. For more information on the project, including expert views and news stories, see


Economics topic page                                   Chinese tourist boom blogpost                            The Silk Road video



[1] The full name of the project translates as ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road’ but this is widely abbreviated to ‘One Belt, One Road.’ The two complementary initiatives aim to increase China’s trade, cooperation and cultural exchange across a continuous ‘belt’ of Eurasian countries connected by land borders, and along the ‘maritime road’ formed by the contiguous oceans around South and Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa. According to a Chatham House article: “OBOR  potentially  involves  over 60 countries with a combined population of over 4 billion people, whose markets currently account for about one-third of global GDP.”

[2] The term ‘Silk Road’ was created in the nineteenth century to describe the extensive network of trade routes on both land and sea that connected China in the East to the Mediterranean and Europe in the West. Since trade was often by sea instead of land, some academics prefer the term ‘Silk Routes’; and still others prefer ‘Spice Routes’ since spices were a more important trade commodity than silks. For a brief history of the old Silk Roads see




[6] The relationship between trade and peace or conflict has been much debated over the centuries. For an interesting review see