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Empty trains on the modern Silk Road: when Belt and Road interests don’t align (pandapawdragonclaw.blog)
98 points by yorwba 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments



This has been rumored for some time on various railfan groups across the web and I've always figured it to be true. In a few instances, people have called out that trains are moving too quickly up grades for their supposed load or are way underpowered for a train if all the containers were full. It's all been a bit suspect.

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.


The explanation is more simple:

1. Russia

2. Kazakhstan

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.


Ehhh. They do put a lot of money into the Russian network and same in Kazakhstan, but it is by no means efficient or well used capital. It’s the primary lifeline in Russia for goods/bulk as they don’t have sea lanes or major rivers through major agricultural areas (like the Mississippi).

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.


> as they don’t have sea lanes or major rivers through major agricultural areas (like the Mississippi).

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.


Thanks - you explained it better than I :)


With point 4, while I'm assuming it's just inefficient, is it credible this is strategic? In the event of war and EMP or cyber attack their supply lines can function as normal type thing?


Perhaps that’s true, but don’t give them that much credit.

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.


Russia looks more to the railroads for national security and employment, not profitability. They do work well enough, but in a war would not be nearly as effective as if they’d been properly managed in the first place.



Isn't another branch of the rail system supposed to run south through Iran? What are the conditions on that branch like?


They’re ok. Iranian rail is in rough shape. Most locomotives are older US-built EMD engines that they’re maintaining with smuggled or home-grown parts, or newer Siemens or Alston engines that are less reliable but also not worn down.

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.


> Break of gauge: Any of the current routes require gauge changes between 5' and 4'8.5".

You'd think that with Chinese money, the former Soviet Union countries in the way would be happy to dual-gauge their track.


Well, it’s bit more complex.

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 :(


>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.

In this situation four rails are used: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rail_Baltica_Lietuva...


True - but then you’re looking at even more cost. I had forgotten about the four rail solution though :)


Trains carry tanks as well as goods. I wouldn't be surprised if Russia leaned on them not to get too cozy with China.


According to legend, when the king of Qin wanted to conquer Shu (which occupied an enviable defensive position behind two mountain ranges), he offered Shu's king a diplomatic gift, five large stone statues.

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.


The way I've heard this legend was that the king of Qin enticed the king of Shu to take the statues by making it appear they could defecate gold. At night, he would have servants drop gold around their hinds, and in the morning he would coincidentally take Shu ambassadors on a walk near the statues. That's how the news got to the Shu king about these miraculous gold-pooping cows.


Correct. I believe in WW2 the Germans had a problem with different gauge in Russia, and horses were still used mainly, and of course got eaten! :)


Yep! Though, the different gauge was actually not intentional by Stalin to make things harder on the Germans but actual a decision by the tzar (debunking that old myth)


Interesting! Do you have any links to the railfan forums?


Why would your 1(a) be a problem compared to transport by ship? As i see it only requires 2 reloadings, one when entering broad gauge, and another when leaving. Both can be automated. If it needs to be, remains to be seen. According to [1] http://en.khorgosgateway.com/sections/%D0%98%D0%BD%D1%84%D1%...

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 either.

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.

Diversity!



It exists, as I noted, but is nowhere near reliable enough or able to deal with the punishment and extreme conditions. That said, it may improve over time to a point where it doesn’t matter - but that is not yet the case.


This article argues against the premise that the power and “deep pocket” of the Chinese state can overcome problems that the market cannot solve when left alone, but misses the forest for the trees. Obviously China doesn't attempt this category of infrastructure projects because they have to make immediate economic sense. They tackle them for political and long term geostrategic purposes. Some side benefits are that it's cheaper than US-style global military hegemony, far more permanent, and more readily accepted by populations. For example our local project https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HKZMB cost USD$18.8B which is less than twelve days of the current US military budget of USD$1.65B per day, a lot cheaper and more acceptable than invading Hong Kong and effectively the crown jewel and literal gateway to one of the most populated areas and busiest shipping lanes on the planet. Plus bragging rights. See also impressive road and rail infrastructure through Yunnan, rail to Tibet and Southeast Asia, etc.


Doesn't seem wrong to me. WRT military spending i'm always thinking that "we" as species have the capacity to rain down death and fire over and over again. Yet, when there is a large forest fire somewhere, doesn't matter where, happens all the times, we lack the capacity to effectively rain down water to douse it. Maybe i`ve played too much SimCity, but that's how i see it.

Utter failure.


So, a continuation of the same "construction of the sake of the appearance of growth" phenomena that we saw with ghost cities?


Except lots of the original ghost cities are now full.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2016/04/23/chinas-l...

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.


Uh... Did you read the article you cited? It literally said the area is still empty they just stopped including it as part of the city and only included the inhabited part, though that part was already full of people before those buildings went up. It's more of a quirk in how cities are defined as administrative regions instead of distinct urban areas. The buildings are still empty though. Like most things in China it's lots of talk and flash, little real magic behind the show.


They finished building an LRT in Ottawa. They've been running totally empty trains on it for months. Clearly they must have built it for the illusion that they had rail transit.

(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 feel after this article, things will change.


China's government certainly deserves criticism, but I notice that there has been a big increase in posts critical of China on large forums such as Reddit and Hacker News in the last half-year or so, which leads me to suspect that some such posts may be astroturfed or inspired by astroturfing. The Hong Kong situation could explain some of it, but the increase I refer to began before the recent Hong Kong crisis.


Since dang apparently decided to enable replying to this comment, let me explain why I submitted the article. I've been following the Panda Paw Dragon Claw blog for about a year because spending time in China has raised my awareness for various ongoing developments there, and I think the blog provides an interesting analytical perspective.

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.


We have a site guideline here that asks users not to post insinuations of astroturfing: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html. Such perceptions are notoriously in the eye of the beholder. See https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20astroturf&sort=byDat... for lots (and lots and lots) more explanation.

As far as we can tell, macro geopolitical shifts are enough to explain the trend on HN, no differently than anywhere else.




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