This has only fueled a lot of skepticism about the BRI. There's a few primary reasons for this:
1. Break of gauge: Any of the current routes require gauge changes between 5' and 4'8.5". Each time this occurs it incurs either (a) translating costs to move containers from railcar to railcar, or (b) bogie change costs. This both slows it down and adds significant labor expense to the endeavor which reduces competitiveness vs sea. Talgo (in Spain) makes gauge-changing bogies which theoretically can handle this, but they are not designed for the tonnage nor are they particularly well-suited to the extreme conditions found on the routes.
2. Axle Loading & Loading Gauge: The axle loads across the different networks are highly variable, requiring cars only be as heavy as the lightest network they travel on. In addition, the loading gauges are much tighter in Europe, resulting in only single containers of shorter length being allowed on COFC trains (Container on Flat Car)
This isn't to say the problems aren't surmountable, just that they have not yet been and it is going to be difficult to do so in the future.
Both charge Chinese trains many times more than their own rate. All those mind boggling subsidies basically translate into handing out free money to them for hauling air.
And even if they were to be billed fairly, both Russian and Kazakhstani railways are both living from bailout to bailout themselves as:
1. Rail infrastructure is falling apart without a single major upgrade since the collapse of the Union
2. Rail is a patently bottomless watering hole for the bureaucrats running it
3. Most of money on the rail is spent on maintenance of unprofitable, and deeply underused routes god knows where in order to solicit more bailout money
4. Everything on Russian rail is done in the most inefficient way possible, also in order to solicit more bailouts. It is 2019, and Russia still uses human signallers, wooden ties, and sand ballast. Even passenger cars are still heated with firewood.
The state of the main trunk lines (moscow-Vladivostok, Baikal-Amur, etc) is actually quite good. But lots of secondary and “state-interest” lines are either in poor repair, wastes of money, or both.
Russia does have major rivers (Don, Volga, Ob, Yenisei, and Lena), but the problem is they all go in the wrong direction--they're all north-south instead of east-west. In addition, they don't exactly lead to good port facilities, with the Don being the only one with an ice-free port connected to the world's oceans.
I did an internship in a state capitol in the 90s. One of the bizarre things were the elevator operators. The elevators were new, so these guys pushed buttons and accepted Christmas gifts for a living. They also eavesdropped and told people about interesting conversations... but their presence was patronage, not some grand scheme.
China does want to have a standard gauge line through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. But it is proving hard to accomplish and the terrain is very rough. It would eliminate break of gauge as a problem though, but introduces lots of political and security issues as well.
You'd think that with Chinese money, the former Soviet Union countries in the way would be happy to dual-gauge their track.
The difference in gauge is very small (3.5”) when the average railhead width is just over 2.5” leaving only one inch which is too narrow for most wheel flanges.
On top of that you also need to re-tie all the ties, and they also are more expensive as they’re made for dual gauge and thus hold 50% more weight in rail.
In addition, you’re talking thousands of miles of track. The cost is enormous unfortunately :(
In this situation four rails are used: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rail_Baltica_Lietuva...
Given the obvious impossibility of taking the statues across the mountains on foot, he also offered to construct a road from Qin into Shu at his own expense.
The king of Shu accepted, the road was built, and the statues arrived. The armies of Qin followed shortly thereafter.
this one of several "dry ports" with gauge change has the capacity of handling 18000 containers per day, which is about one modern large container ship.
Leaving the broad gauge zone isn't bottlenecked to one place
Regarding the axle loads and loading gauges i can't see your point either, since almost anything broad gauge is built according to former soviet standards and their heavy needs.
It's not like the parts of track used for this are rotten since the collapse. This is all rebuilt, new, and maintained in good condition.
In the harbour town i live in which is standard gauge country, the only limitation seems to be the length of trains, which tops out at 750m/2460ft. I see 53ft containers on trains, trucks, standing here and there, though it is not common, so it stands out.
Anyways, it works? It´s just inertia, and jabbering by established parties which have interests to protect.
Nobody cares. More options in transport are a good thing.
The probably is that a journalist that doesn't understand how China works stumbled onto a construction zone and didn't understand what they saw. Chinese build housing for half a million people at once fairly regularly. I've gone past multiple constructions sites like this.
They also build whole cities (which the ghost cities story was about) and they fill up. A bunch of people pre-buy and once they get a minimum buy-in they start construction. Once the city is mostly finished it still takes a while for everything else to be done inside BUT in China, they don't fence of construction sites at this stage while in developed countries they do. You can just walk in and look around. There are no squatters laws so people cannot just take your property and there are fewer liability issues so they don't really care.
(This is called reductio ad absurdum. The cause of the ghost cities, and these empty trains, are both more complex and more interesting from it. In the case of Ottawa, they were having issues getting the trains running properly on it, whether due to issues with the rails or the electrical lines or the railcars. It should be running publicly in a few weeks)
I submitted this article in particular because I think it gives a good description of the various actors involved in the BRI and how their competing interests cause them to undermine each other. I've noticed that many people seem to think of China as a single actor, a brutally efficient totalitarian state controlling everything within its reach, and as a result they don't distinguish clearly between the central government, local governments, state-owned enterprises, private companies and individual Chinese people participating in discussions online. I don't think that is due to malice or disinformation spread by the media, but simply due to a too simple model caused by unfamiliarity.
So my hope is that this article can lift the veil of homogeneity a little bit and help people gain an understanding of the underlying complexity.
As far as we can tell, macro geopolitical shifts are enough to explain the trend on HN, no differently than anywhere else.