Caspian Rail

China is eyeing a four-fold increase in container volumes going via its Middle Corridor rail services and the Caspian Sea this year.

Meeting in Astana, last week Chinese president Xi Jinping and Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev launched the new China-Europe Railway Express service to capitalise on a hybrid model to speed up Europe-bound services.

The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) begins at Lianyungang, in China, crosses Kazakhstan, the Caspian, Azerbaijan and Georgia en route to Europe.

Gaidar Abdikerimov, secretary-general of the TITR International Association, said trans-Caspian routing had been a “vital artery” into Europe, although others have challenged the assertion, pointing to its limited capacity.

Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there had been surging interest from shippers concerned about rail volumes being caught in sanctions were they to pass through Russia. And with transit times adopting the hybrid sea-rail model via the Caspian taking just 12 days to reach Europe from China, the Middle Corridor seemed like a strong contender. But, in reality, the route appeared to lack the necessary infrastructure and capacity to meet demand.

Since the start of the year, some 60 container trains have made the journey along the Middle Corridor, but the new service is intended to encourage greater uptake by shippers.

Precisely how many trains will run has not been made clear, but Azerbaijani media claims are that they will run “daily”, one outlet suggesting China was eyeing 250 more services by the end of the year.

During their meeting, presidents Xi and Tokayev stressed that they intended to bolster regional infrastructure to accommodate more services across the Caspian.

Local media quoted the two leaders as pledging to “improve the level of interconnection and continue to deepen cooperation”, as they announced plans to open more border ports along the route and tout for greater uptake from forwarders.


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