At train station on China-Mongolia border, seamless transition of freight boosts to trade between countries

By Chu Daye in Erenhot Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/3 19:43:39

The cargo connection

Under the "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative, the notion of connectivity refers to efforts made to ensure the seamless connection of trade and transportation. It can also be referred to as improved exchanges between neighboring peoples. The Global Times visited the Erlian Railway Station in Erenhot, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, to see what connectivity really means at the ground level.

Trains carrying dry bulk cargo such as timber and iron ore temporarily park in the depot at Erlian Railway Station in Erenhot, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on April 27. Photo: Chu Daye/GT

Hu Bo runs the train station in the border city of Erenhot, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Among his run-of-the-mill management tasks, the 40-something station chief had a meeting on April 27 with his Mongolian counterparts to discuss the issue of seamless transition between China and Mongolia.

Overall, Hu was satisfied with how Erlian Railway Station was running.

Turnover has been good so far in 2017. "A small station can make a large contribution to the initiative," he said, referring to the China-proposed "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative, officially known as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

Particularly important to Hu, the initiative calls for the creation of an economic corridor to better connect China, Mongolia and Russia.

With a look reminiscent of the remote train stations of the 20th century, the Erlian Railway Station was established in the 1950s as a part of the continental railway system that linked several socialist countries.

The city of Erenhot was built because of the railway station. Its buildings were constructed with materials brought in by the trains.

"While the B&R initiative may sound like a pie-in-the-sky ambition to ordinary citizens, we railway workers in Erenhot have indeed felt its impact," Hu told the Global Times on April 27.

"For instance, in 2015, 76 China Railway [CR] Express freight trains passed through our station. In 2016, the number jumped to 161. To date this year, there have been 90, and it is expected we will hit a new record this year," Hu said.

Golden location

"Our city sits along a trade route between Beijing and [the Mongolian capital of] Ulan Bator," Erenhot Mayor Tian Yong told the Global Times on Thursday. "During the 13th Five-Year Plan period [2016-20], we aim to build our city into an important connection along the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor - the golden gate open to the North - as well as a prosperous and stable border city," Tian said.

Several trains originating from cities such as Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province, and Southwest China's Chongqing pass through Erenhot.

To Hu's understanding, the B&R initiative is about the smooth flow of people and cargo.

"It is also about driving economic growth in cities along transportation arteries and newly opened travel routes," he noted. "The central railway authority is doing its best to ensure this vision becomes a reality."

A smoother transfer

Connections at the border are not as easy as one might assume. When a cargo train hauling as many as 50 cars from Zamyn-Uud, Mongolia, enters China, the cars have to be detached according to cargo type, then rearranged so that the cargo can be taken to their respective depots for offloading.

Zamyn-Uud is about five kilometers away from Erenhot, and the two are something of sister cities.

With cyclical factors once again favoring raw materials, the commodity trade is heating up.

This translates into train after train carrying coal, timber, copper, zinc and iron ore pulling into Erlian Railway Station's holding area. Other bulk goods include paper pulp, rapeseed, wheat bran and crude oil. And those don't even include the container cargo from CR Express.

Ideally, a 50-car train should carry the same commodity, such as iron ore, coal or timber, Hu said. However, trains typically arrive carrying a variety of goods.

"A less scientifically formed mix of cars means breakneck work for Chinese handlers, and the time needed to complete the transfer will multiply," he noted.

Suppose there are 50 cars carrying up to a dozen types of commodities in a random fashion. The work to break up and rearrange these cars to make them suitable for cargo transfer would become tedious and time-consuming, according to Hu.

To tackle the issue, Hu has arranged routine communications with Mongolian railway authorities to coordinate issues. Most of the discussion is about the station's handling capacity for cargo sent from Mongolia, as well as the way the Zamyn-Uud railway station sends its cargo trains.

The meetings were effective, Hu said.

"Now they send us trains with all 50 cars loaded with coal. For iron ore, we can expect that all 50 cars will be carrying ore of the same grade, or better still, all of the iron ore is for the same client," Hu said, adding that the communications have greatly helped the station's operations.

Hu said that his station's employees have worked diligently in 2017 to make sure that the station can handle the cargo of 10 trains from Mongolia each day. This compares to an average of 6.8 trains in 2015 and 8.1 trains in 2016.

The station has not received any equipment upgrades in a decade. To do their jobs, Hu and his colleagues really have to roll up their sleeves. Sometimes, workers have to shoulder 20 percent extra work.

A smooth transfer also involves many departments.

The customs authority and the quality and quarantine authority stationed in Erenhot have also extended their working hours to offer 24-7 services to CR Express, shortening the time needed to get clearance by measures such as data-sharing.

A statement from the customs authority said it has invented a "dump first, clear later" policy for time-sensitive cargo, such as imported agricultural produce.

In part, the B&R initiative has boosted people's confidence, which translates into more cargo for the station, Hu said.

According to an internal railway intelligence report seen by the Global Times, there were 2,955 active trains in Mongolia on April 26, including 376 trains concentrated near Zamyn-Uud.

By comparison, there were 1,340 active trains in Mongolia around the same time in 2016.

According to a document provided by Tian, the mayor, the value of iron ore imports increased by 46.2 percent year-on-year to 200 million yuan ($29.01 million) in the first quarter of 2017. Meanwhile, the value of timber grew by 24.7 percent year-on-year to 390 million yuan, and copper ore powder imports saw their value grow by 33 percent year-on-year to 1.17 billion yuan.

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