The idea of travelling by train from Beijing via Moscow to the Austrian capital has long been an unlikely far-flung dream. But in 15 years, the Trans-Siberian railway could indeed reach the gates of Vienna. EURACTIV Germany reports from Vienna.
China’s ambitions to extend the Silk Road into Central Europe mean solutions are being sought to avoid shipping freight on the more than 20,000 kilometre-long sea route and use the 11,000 kilometre-long and therefore time-saving land route.
Railways offer opportunities. Austrian Transport Minister Norbert Hofer now wants to lay the tracks to make the idea of linking to the Pacific a reality.
But the problem is that in northern Asia and Eastern Europe, railway track width is 1,520 millimetres but in Europe it is only 1,435 millimetres, divided into the broad and standard gauge.
Currently, trains need to be redirected at the eastern borders of Poland and Slovakia, which is a time-consuming process that also requires complementary rolling stock.
Studies have been ongoing for some time and there are resolutions and preliminary contracts to tackle this problem.
Specifically, because the shortest distance has to be overcome, the Russian broad gauge currently ending in Košice, Slovakia, is to be extended via Bratislava to near Vienna.
Here, where there is a connection to the European high-performance transport network and also to the Danube-Main-Rhine river transversal, a large transhipment terminal is to be established. The new route to be built amounts to about 450 kilometres, with costs estimated to be in the €6-7 billion range.
It would also create new tourism opportunities. Besides freight traffic, it would also be possible to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway not only from Beijing to Moscow but even further, to Vienna.
The project has many supporters in business and industry circles. Instead of four to six weeks, goods could be transported from Europe to Asia in around a fortnight.
But on the other hand, many are concerned that the European economy could be put under even more pressure from Chinese competition. And that is why the project of revitalising the old Silk Road is regarded with some scepticism.
Critics of Hofer’s initiative point out that freight trains from China to Germany, Austria and even Great Britain are already in operation without any problems. There is already a practical solution for re-routing wagons, which does not require the construction of a new line from Košice to Vienna.
For Hofer, who wants to set the political agenda with new projects and also wants the Austrian Federal Railways to play a role in international traffic competition, the broad-gauge extension represents a “historic opportunity”.
Together with Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov, he has signed an agreement in Vienna, with which the project is to be brought on track.
After completing all approval procedures and the necessary construction time – Slovakia is already on board – it should be possible for the first direct train from Beijing to arrive at the gates of Vienna in 2033.
Of course, the issue of financing is still open. Both sides hope for the EU, the IMF and maybe even private investors to come onboard the China express.