[UPDATE, Mar 2021] Situations have changed considerably since this blog was first posted in 2019, which warrants a major update. As a front-page story by Caixin on Feb 20, 2021 shows, Covid-19 has created a major shock to global cargo shipping and China-Europe Railway Express might be one of its major benefactors.
The number of Europe-bound freight train trips and containers transported were up by 50% and 56% respectively in 2020, according to data released by China State Railway Group Corporation. Transportation charges per container jumped from around USD 2000 at the beginning of 2020 to around USD 9000 at the end of the year, with booking increasingly difficult. Those numbers indicate unexpectedly strong demand for a means of cross-continental transportation that had been struggling to attract business away from maritime and airborne transportation before Covid hit.
Based on Caixin’s interview with industry insiders, the Covid-induced shock: disruptions to shipping by sea and by air, has made China-Europe Railway Express a highly attractive alternative. The pandemic caused delays in freight train transportation were much less severe than in maritime transportation. And increased costs of shipping by sea also increased the competitiveness of trains. Apparently, according to Caixin, the lockdowns in Europe may have also contributed. As people stock up everything from paper towels to fitness equipment, commodities better suit for freight trains, Alibaba is shipping 5 times more containers through China Europe Railway Express than a regular year before.
The strong demand in 2020 may change China-Europe freight rail transportation in fundamental ways that government subsidies in previous years failed to. A new client base that is drawn to the service for its value proposition (a viable alternative to air and maritime transportation) rather than for subsidies, is crucial for the healthy future growth of the industry. The unexpected booming year also helps regulators and stakeholders identify bottlenecks and choking points in the train routes, which lays the ground for better customs coordination, infrastructure improvement and regulatory alignment. For example, one of the bottlenecks is (still) the lack of returning containers from Europe back to China, an indication of unbalanced trade patterns and a major source of delay. The organic demand may also ease the phase-out of market-distorting provincial government subsidies.
Even though most industry insiders interviewed by Caixin saw 2020 as an exceptional year and believed that demand is unlikely to maintain such high level (shipping by sea has gradually recovered in the second half of 2020), the year does appear to have improved the prospects for a key component of the BRI’s connectivity drive. The trains are no longer empty on the modern Silk Road.
[ORIGINAL BLOG, Aug 2019)
China is sending empty freight trains to Europe through one of its key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects: the China-Europe Railway Express. The bizarre phenomenon caught the attention of Depth Paper (等深线), a Chinese online news platform. In a rare move by a Chinese media outlet in today’s media environment, Depth Paper probed critically into one of the BRI’s most visible “connectivity” projects, uncovering the perverse incentives that are luring China’s local governments and companies to create huge “bubbles” of ostensibly flourishing rail routes that run tens of thousands of kilometers across the vast landmass of Eurasia.
The revelation partly confirms what some observers have suspected all along: that China’s central government lacks the ability to keep BRI strategically tight and coordinated. Sub-national stakeholders, as they do in other policy areas, have the incentives to bend the initiative to their own narrowly defined interests and in the process undermine the overarching strategy, if such a strategy indeed exists at all. The curious case uncovers some important dynamics playing out among Belt and Road’s diverse stakeholders.
The China-Europe Railway Express
Transporting goods between China and Europe through railroads is not a common choice for traders. Up to now, it only makes up 4.8% of the total bilateral trade volume, far behind commodities moved by sea (68%) and air (19.4%). For many years, the China-Europe rail routes were interrupted by the fragmented customs, quarantine and taxation regimes of countries along the way. As a rail transport agent in west China told Depth Paper, sending cargo to Germany through rail was unimaginable as recently as 1997. “Central Asia was as far as we could go.”
But, according to the report, things changed about a decade ago. Years before the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, the instigator of this change was in fact the American computer company Hewlett-Packard. In 2009, as the computer giant negotiated a major investment deal with Chongqing, the city on the upstream Yangtze River with no easy access to a sea port, it included a condition that it should be able to transport its products to the European market by train: westbound directly from the city, instead of first going east to the sea. The Chongqing government accepted the condition and after two years, the Chongqing to Duisburg rail route was made navigable, allowing HP to ship to Europe in a relatively low cost (compared to air transport) and speedy way (compared to shipping by sea).
Before 2013, the year when BRI was formally announced, a few other freight rail routes were made possible by such bottom-up commercial interests. The city of Wuhan in central China, a major base for car manufacturing, developed Wuhan to Europe routes upon which half of its car outputs now depend for transportation. Similarly, Yiwu, the light industry powerhouse of Zhejiang province, opened up its own rail route to ship large quantities of small commodities, from garments to needles, to Europe. Ironically, those early trials, mostly developed by landlocked Chinese municipalities, received little central government support around that time. According to Depth Paper, China’s railway administrators even charged a fee for the extra burden those freight lines created. Its attitude toward such initiatives would make a 180 turn after BRI came into being.
2013 saw the creation of BRI and the incorporation of China-Europe rail links under the umbrella of President Xi’s signature initiative as a key connectivity component. As China’s 2015 Vision and Strategy document for the BRI declared the intention of building the rail routes into a “brand name service”, the number of routes began to explode. Dozens of Chinese cities, including those on the east coast with easy access to ports, joined the bandwagon of rail transportation.
In 2016, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) laid out a five year plan for the expansion of westbound rail routes. And China’s railway planner published a blueprint document on building up the brand reputation of China Railway Express. China State Railway Group Corporation, which used to be the railway ministry, began to highlight the growth of Europe-bound voyages as a major achievement.
The elevation of the freight service in political importance created powerful incentives for players to “rig the game”. Depth Paper reveals two groups of schemers in the game:
Provincial and local governments: As the number of freight trips to and from Europe become a measurable indicator, local governments, particularly those sitting at key railway hubs, saw a clear opportunity to boost their visibility under the BRI (and probably to the leadership). At their disposal were subsidies to lower the cost of freight services and make them competitive with cargo ships.
The Ministry of Finance provides a guiding subsidy ceiling of 0.8USD/container/kilometer. But ambitious local governments circumvent it by inventing all kinds of additional rewards to lure businesses to their train terminals, sometimes even compensating for the extra mileage of truck transportation to bring containers from thousands of kilometers away. According to a chart collated by Sino Trade and Finance, many municipal government offer around 3000USD per container for a one-way Europe bound trip and a whole train could receive a total of 123,000USD worth of subsidies per trip. These local governments also use tax rebate and land use subsidies to sweeten the deal for freight service companies.
International railway service companies: Competition with each other and pressure from local governments eager for BRI visibility has incentivized the companies who actually run the numerous rail routes to Europe to increase the number of train trips. Every month these companies have to book planned trips from the railway regulators and get what is called a “route slip” that permits them to run those trains. The ratio of actual trips to the applied number is called “realization rate” that regulators use to monitor rail capacity utilization.
The interplay of these incentives drives both groups to boost indicators that make them look good in this game, creating scenes that are outright bizarre. The government of Xi’an is one of the most active players starting from 2018. The city, 1000 kilometers to the west of Beijing and the former capital of Tang Dynasty more than a millennium ago, considers itself the “starting point of the ancient Silk Road” and strives to restore its glory in the Belt and Road era. With full support from its provincial bosses, it is the most generous with subsidies, dwarfing other provinces by a wide margin. “Subsidized per container transportation price from Xi’an is constantly below RMB 8500, while it costs over 20000 RMB from Shandong,” a trade agent told Depth Paper.
The subsidies are of the scale that they bend the gravity of trade. In the most extreme cases, traders in the far west Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which already borders Central Asia and is itself a Belt and Road rail hub, would move their cargo thousands of kilometers to the east to capitalize on the Xi’an government’s free handouts before transporting west across the Eurasian continent. Similarly, traders in coastal Shandong provinces would truck their goods all the way to Xi’an and load them onto trains, as it is cheaper even after taking into account the 5000 RMB per container transportation cost by truck (for which the Xi’an government also partially remunerates). The result is that Europe-bound freight train trips from Xi’an grew by a whopping 536.6% in just one year from 2017 to 2018.
The railway service companies, on the other hand, blow up their trip numbers even when they have very little to ship. Before Xi’an arrived on the scene in 2018, the competition between Chongqing and Chengdu, two nearby cities, was so fierce that the two cities would refuse to merge cargo loads back from Germany despite neither being able to fill a whole train themselves. When the pressure (and reward) to be the top railway service company facilitating “Belt and Road” trips to Europe becomes huge, the companies simply start loading empty containers to their trains. They must ensure that each train meets the regulator’s 40-container minimum before it leaves the station, but there is no obligation and no ability (for lack of demand) to fill those containers.
In the most extreme case, one train carried 40 empty containers and just one full container all the way to Europe. This makes the China Railway Express’s impressive growth number highly dubious, and most certainly a “bubble”. Even with all their tricks, companies can barely fulfill their promise to regulators: they have overbooked railway resources. In Q2 of 2019, Chongqing’s “realization rate” dipped to as low as 64% for some routes.
Artificially enabled transportation routes are more of a disruption to than facilitation of trade, as China’s policy makers are slowly but painfully beginning to realize. Subsidies are both unsustainable and capricious: “Sometimes a city changes a Party Secretary and the new boss has other priorities for his budget.” This makes it hard for businesses to make long term plans and build China Railway Express into their logistic strategies.
Heavy subsidies also encourage opportunistic behavior that runs against the original intention of the policy. “[Subsidies] are supposed to help first-time users overcome initial transition difficulties and cultivate user acceptance of freight rail as a reliable means of transportation”, says one anonymous Liaoning provincial official to Depth Paper. “[But] what Xi’an does can hardly nurture real needs. Traders will go back to sea and air as soon as subsidies disappear.” The official also warns that such unpredictability and fluctuation would hurt the China Railway Express’s reputation overseas and permanently scare clients away.
The Ministry of Finance is reportedly determined to pierce the bubble by enforcing a schedule for phased subsidy reduction. Subsidies by local government are to be no more than 40% of a route’s total cost in 2019. The ceiling will be further lowered to 30% in 2020 and zero by 2022. The Ministry is hoping that by then the trains running up and down routes would be completely market driven and China Railway Express will stand on its own two feet.
The episode reveals the fundamental difficulties for China’s central leadership to implement its vision by reducing it to seemingly measurable indicators and supposedly workable incentives that mobilize local players to participate in a central government cause. Distortions and outright undermining of central government agenda happens with GDP numbers, air pollution targets, and other domestic issues. BRI is no exception.
It also calls into question a key underlying assumption of the BRI, that the power and “deep pocket” of the Chinese state can overcome problems that the market cannot solve when left alone. Trade flows, it turns out, are not easily bendable by the sheer will of the state. It is a rare occasion for a Chinese media outlet to so directly call out systemic problems in President Xi Jinping’s signature initiative. As China embarks on other overseas adventures that premise on the ability of state capitalism to shift the center of gravity of global trade (through new ports and rail hubs), the troubles of China Railway Express should serve as a cautionary tale of the limits of state power.