With high-speed trains hurtling through the countryside at up to 350 kilometers per hour, diesel engines pulling rolling stock through the provinces, and trucks roaring up the motorways, it may be easy to forget that there is a quieter, cheaper and more traditional way of moving goods in China.
Transporting goods using the country’s inland waterways is the oldest and least costly method of moving cargo. For all its history, however, it is an option that has been largely neglected as the government has focused on developing eastern coastal seaports to facilitate exports.
Pilar Dieter, director of Alaris Consulting in Shanghai, sees waterways like the Yangtze River as offering viable alternatives to rail and road in the transportation of commodities and heavy goods such as coal and steel.
"The Yangtze is China’s ‘Golden Waterway’," she said. "The river stretches 6,300 kilometers through seven provinces and handles 80% of the country’s inland water transport traffic. River transport may provide an interesting alternative to rail and trucks from these regions."
In its 2007 National Plan for Inland Waterways and Ports, the State Council and the Ministry of Communications (now the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Railways) set the ambitious goal of connecting the Yangtze River, Xijiang River, Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, the Yangtze River Delta Waterway Network, the Pearl River Delta Waterway Network and 18 other waterways by 2020.
But China’s inland waterway facilities still lag far behind those of coastal ports. Chung Tam, chief representative of the American Society of Transport and Logistics in Beijing, notes that the government has started to invest in the modernization of inland river ports but more needs to be done.
"The current problems facing China’s inland waterways include increasing pollution from outdated vessels, lack of scale with many small operators, lack of standardization in the size and types of vessels and lack of modern management," Chung said.
A well-managed modern inland water transportation system with modern vessels and ports would offer a low-cost, efficient method to transport raw materials and manufactured goods, which would help to further stimulate economic development in the inner provinces.
But even a modern river transport system won’t replace road and rail. As economical as it may seem, chugging down the Yangtze from Chongqing to Shanghai and back again, does have its cost: time. "Shipping a 20-foot container from Chongqing to Shanghai using barge is approximately RMB3,000 [US$440], compared to truck which is seven times that rate," Dieter said.
"The trade-off is the time, which extends from 30 hours to four or five days, coupled with the environmental unreliability of water levels, which could hold up any river-going voyage indefinitely."