A leading Japanese shipping firm conducted a trial run on Dec. 20 using a Chinese train to move its freight along the railway that links China’s Xian, Shaanxi province, with Duisburg, Germany.

Nippon Express Co. used the exclusive China Railway Express freight train as a pilot program.

The China Railway Express, an international regular cargo train that connects China and European countries, operates along the onshore routes of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, a modern-day economic “Silk Road,” a Chinese state project championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The train cars used in the trial run are about 12 meters long.

“(The Nippon Express plan) will benefit Japan and China, and it is the representative project of cooperation between those two nations toward third countries, which has recently being called for (related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative),” said Hirobumi Iida, minister for commercial affairs at the Japanese Embassy in China, during an event held in Xian on Dec. 20.

The China Railway Express is attracting attention from Japanese companies that operate in European countries and China, as a third transportation option after air and maritime transport.

There are two routes for the China Railway Express–one passes through Russia and the other through Kazakhstan.

The trains, dubbed an “array of iron camels,” take more than two weeks to reach their destinations on tracks that stretch more than 10,000 kilometers.

The China express started offering service between Chongqing and Duisburg in 2011. It has been transporting electronic items, automobile parts, finished cars and miscellaneous goods along 90 lines as of August.

Although it costs two or three times more to use the China Express than a maritime route, the onshore route takes only half as long as transport by sea.

Using the railway takes longer than air transport, but it’s about 75 percent less expensive. It is also an advantage that there is no seasonal fluctuation in its freight rates.

After Xi promoted the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the number of China Railway Express service runs rapidly increased–3,600 in 2017, and 5,000 are expected in 2020.

Nippon Express is seeking business opportunities to regularly operate trains on the China Railway Express in 2019 and beyond.

This article was written by Naoyuki Fukuda in Xian and Miho Tanaka