Source: adapted from International Union of Railways (2004) The Northern East West (N.E.W.) Freight Corridor, Transportutvikling AS.
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The Northern East-West Freight Corridor (Eurasian Landbridge)
The idea to link the Far East and Europe by rail takes its origin with the construction of the Trans Siberian railway linking Moscow to Vladivostok, completed in 1916. With a length of 9,200 km it is the longest rail segment in the world. It was initially used solely as an inland rail link, but in the 1960s the Soviet Union started offering a landbridge service from Vladivostok using the Trans Siberian to reach Western Europe. This came to be known as the Northern East-West corridor (NEW) or the Eurasian Landbridge. However, geopolitical considerations would limit the adoption of this trade corridor by international shipping companies. In addition, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s created a context of geopolitical instability within Russia and its former republics as well as a lack of investments and maintenance over the existing rail and terminal facilities. The idea of using the corridor as a transcontinental and transnational route was abandoned.
The beginning of the 21st century has however brought renewed interests for the NEW corridor, especially with the booming Asian trade with Europe and the increasing pressure to ship containerized freight in a time sensitive manner over long distances. The Northern East-West freight corridor in its contemporary form is composed of a maritime segment and a land segment:
  • Maritime segment (seabridge). Links the Atlantic coast of North America with the port of Narvik, Norway, with a distance of about 6,600 km. Narvik offers a year long ice-free and direct access to the Trans Siberian through Sweden and Finland. The transit time is about 8 (Halifax) to 10 (New York) days. Another segment running through Rotterdam may also be used, but it is longer and has a higher level of congestion.
  • Land segment (landbridge). The main routes would use the Trans-Siberian Railway either branching to Vladivostok with connections to Eastern China, the two Koreas or, by sea, to Japan; or branching to Kazakhstan, entering western China at Druzhba and then through the Lanzhou rail  hub and onward to the coast of central China. The rail distance between Narvik and Urumqi, China is about 7,200 km and takes about 7 days of transit time. This corridor could save up to 20-25 days on the journey between China and the United States. There are thus two major rail segments; the conventional Siberian Landbridge and the potential Eurasian Landbridge.
All the necessary infrastructure exists to ensure the setting of the NEW corridor, particularly along the Trans Siberian which is double tracked and electrified. The question remains at improving some segments to insure a better integration of all the elements of this very complex multinational transport chain. Among the numerous challenges of the NEW corridor are:
  • Multinational cooperation. There are seven countries involved in rail land segment that are politically, economically and culturally very different. Unlike the North American landbridge where rail segments are entirely contained within an individual nation (US, Canada or Mexico), the multitude of actors require a level of multinational cooperation. This does not present much difficulties for the Scandinavian chain since the concerned countries have a long history of political stability. However, a transport chain is as reliable as its weakest link. Kazakhstan, parts of Siberia (semi autonomous administrative divisions) and even western China present some political risks. It is thus essential to ensure cargo security along the entire transport chain.
  • Gauge changes. The rail system works on two gauges, standard (1.435 m; China and most of Western Europe) and broad (1.520 m; Russia and some Scandinavian countries), which imposes at technical challenge. It requires reloading or an adaptation of the equipment to gauge change. Two gauge changes can take place along the NEW corridor. The first is at Tornio on the Sweden / Finland boarder where the gauge switch from broad to standard. The second takes place at the Chinese border (either at Druzhba or at Zabaykalsk) where the gauge switch back to standard. Using only the Trans Siberian would require one gauge change instead of two. In any cases, this imposes additional delays. Considering the short segment between the port of Narvik and the Finnish border, it may be worth converting it to a broad gauge and thus insure a better continuity in the traffic. This would be particularly relevant if the level of usage increases and thus requires a dedicated corridor.
In spite of these challenges, the prospects of the Eurasian Landbridge remain positive. For China, an opportunity to develop the interior provinces and avoid congestion at the coastal ports could also be partially fulfilled by the Eurasian Landbrdige. In January 2008 a long distance service called the "Beijing-Hamburg Container Express" was inaugurated. The 10,000 km (6,200 miles) service takes 15 days to link the Chinese capital to the German port city, going through Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Belarus and Poland. The maritime journey covering the same markets would take about 30 days.