Progress and Setbacks for the New Overland Great Silk Road

railway under construction
file photo

By The Maritime Executive 12-14-2017 03:43:02

While maritime transportation carries most of Asia – Europe/Africa trade, Modern China has initiated the development of an overland rail-based version of the original Great Silk Road that once connected China to Europe. While the initiative offers faster delivery of containers at higher tariffs, it has encountered both progress and setbacks. 

Westbound Railway Development

Dating back over five years, China’s railway department initiated plans to extend their northwestern railway line further west to connect to the railway network of Kirgizstan. The initiative resulted in the completion of a standard gauge railway line between Tehran and Beijing. Shortly after completion of that line, the first ever freight train traveled from Tehran to Beijing. While there are prospects to develop a short section of railway line to provide a direct rail-based link between Istanbul and Tehran, political unrest in Eastern Turkey has delayed such development, perhaps indefinitely.

The alternative railway connection via Russia now provides a direct overland link between Europe and China, with container freight trains being able to travel between Shanghai and Amsterdam while bypassing Middle Eastern political turmoil that may postpone railway development for several years. Prior to the political upheaval known as the Arab Spring, earlier governments has discussed a Casablanca-to-Cairo railway line. While railways operate in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, development of railway lines in and across Libya have been suspended, perhaps indefinitely and as a result of ongoing political unrest in that nation.

African Railway Development

Over 30 years ago, China provided assistance to develop railway lines in Africa, and this resulted in an overland connection between Benguela/Lobito on the Atlantic coast of Angola and Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean coast of Tanzania. Political unrest from an earlier era in Angola and more recently in Congo has suspended coast-to-coast trans-African railway transportation. Relative peace between Egypt and Sudan has enabled discussions about developing a standard gauge railway connection between Khartoum and Cairo. China recently provided assistance to convert the Addis Ababa – Djibouti railway line to standard gauge.

A railway line extends south along the Blue Nile River from Khartoum toward Ethiopia. There may be future potential to extend that railway line further southeast along the Blue Nile and Rift Valley to connect to Addis Ababa. China also recently provided assistance to Kenya to convert the old narrow gauge railway line to high-weight capacity standard gauge, from the port city of Mombasa going inland to the capital city of Nairobi, with future plans to extend the standard gauge railway line into Uganda and the cities of Entebbe and Kampala. 

Trans African Link

Courtesy of assistance from China, Nigerian railway lines are being converted to standard gauge, including into the northeastern region of the nation. Railway lines in Sudan extend westward toward the nation of Chad. There may be future scope to develop a standard gauge railway line across Chad to connect the railway lines of northeastern Nigeria to Sudan’s southwestern railway line. Future railway connections may be possible from the Nigerian cities of Port Harcourt and Lagos to Khartoum, Cairo and Addis Ababa, with a possible standard gauge railway line from Djibouti to Lagos. 

Political unrest in north-central involves the nations of Libya, Chad, Central African Republic and Zaire (DRC). These nations separate the eastern and western nations of north and central Africa. Their ongoing political strife could delay the development of east-west trans-African railway lines for several decades into the future, leaving maritime as the option by which to move container between Mombasa and Port Harcourt, or between Port Harcourt and Alexandria. Within the next decade, east-west railway lines could connect nations between Cameroun and Senegal, with a north-south rail link connecting nations between Kenya and Egypt. 

Middle Eastern Rails

Middle East political unrest would delay construction of direct railway links that connect across the region to Africa and to Asia. The standard gauge railway line connection between Shanghai and Tehran also connects to the Gulf of Oman and to southern Iraq, near the northern Persian Gulf. Iran and Oman have previously discussed the possibility of constructing a railway bridge over the Strait of Hormuz, though a tunnel under the Strait could also be an option. A coastal railway line could connect Strait of Hormuz to Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb where a bridge or tunnel could connect into Africa.

An alternative railway line could connect Cairo to Aqaba, with standard gauge replacing the narrow gauge railway line between Aqaba and Amman in Jordan and, depending on political negotiations, toward Basra in Iraq and into Iran. Trains traveling across Russia from China could carry priority containers to North Africa, following a route around the Black Sea to Istanbul and then to the Mediterranean coastal city of Mersin. A ferry could carry the containers to a terminal such as Port Sudan, from where railway lines would connect across Sudan to a future trans-Africa railway.

Long-term Business Plan

Many decades ago, Japanese companies were recognized for having formulated business plans that covered a time span of several decades. China’s unique approach to foreign aid has the hallmarks of a long-term business plan and involves the combination of building transportation infrastructures such as railway lines as well as building local factories. The new railway line in Kenya not only moves freight, it also provides for fast daily return passenger trains between Kenya’s largest cities that cover the distance in less than a third of the time as the old narrow gauge trains. 

The long-term business plan so far seems to include railways, pipelines that carry oil and natural gas as well as development of factories. It may also be taking into account the political strife that is occurring in North-Central Africa, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and possibly some future conflict involving Iran. The development of railway lines in East and West Africa would assist in domestic economic development and could prompt leaders in perhaps one central African state to recognize that railways crossing their nation could bring some prosperity, perhaps even encourage opposing sides to support a railway line across their nation.


Besides developing container transshipment ports such as Hambantota terminal at Colombo, Sri Lanka, China’s long-term strategy involves the combination of investing in a new railway-based Great Silk Road that extends from China across multiple international borders to other nations. China has also invested in railway development in distant nations between their coastal port and major inland cities, such as Mombasa – Nairobi and Djibouti – Addis Ababa. The strategy also includes developing factories to produce goods overseas and encourage regional trade. China’s approach to foreign aid may prove to be more productive than the approach of western nations.

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