Going for a spin... Railways continue to be deeply rooted in the UK's national psyche. Photo: AFP
Going for a spin... Railways continue to be deeply rooted in the UK's national psyche. Photo: AFP

The British media dubbed it the Silk Road Train. And as it pulled away from a cold, cloudy and decidedly un-Central Asian platform in London last week, a small crowd waved UK and Chinese flags, clapped and, with reserve and moderation, cheered the train as it set out on the 12,000-kilometer return journey east. A Chinese dragon even did a dance.

This procession of 30 shipping containers, loaded with goodies including British whisky, soft drinks, vitamins, pharmaceuticals and baby products, was headed to Yiwu in China’s eastern Zhejiang province, and its departure filled British TV screens and newspapers.

“This new rail link with China is another boost for Global Britain,” announced Greg Hands, UK Minister of State in the Department for International Trade.


Global Britain. What exactly does it mean? Is it just spin, a classic piece of governmental doublespeak from a small island that feels decidedly un-global right now? Britain is probably the most isolated it’s been since 1940, when the country waited in trepidation to see whether Adolf Hitler would invade. Back then, Blighty was saved by the power of the US. Today, when Brits look across the Atlantic and to their “special relationship” with Washington, it’s with quizzical caution because of the unpredictable policy lunges of the new administration.

Looking the other way, it seems certain that Britain’s cord with Europe has been severed for the foreseeable future.

In the desperate search for friends, the UK has also sought to rekindle some sentimental feelings from its former colonies. An attempt to reignite trade tries with the Commonwealth — 52 states, most of which were once pink patches on the map of an empire on which the sun never set — was derided at home after senior civil servants dismissively dubbed it “Empire 2.0.”

Empire of the never-setting sun… The Rhodes Colossus – cartoon by Edward Linley Sambourne, published in Punch after Rhodes announced plans for a telegraph line from Cape Town to Cairo in 1892. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But then there is always the train.

After chugging through the Channel Tunnel into France, the journey home goes via Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan before arriving at Yiwu on April 27. As it traces “the ancient Silk Road trade route to carry British products around the world,” says Hands, it shows “the huge global demand for quality UK goods.”

Really, it shows nothing of the sort.

When the trade made its inaugural China-UK journey in January, the British capital was actually the 15th European city to join the list of “land bridge” freight rail services from China. Besides, despite the official justifications for the service — that it is cheaper than air freight and quicker than ship — others argue that a UK-China leg would always be traveling too light to be commercially viable in the long run. Why? The lack of huge global demand for Britain’s high quality, but pricey goods.

So it is nothing more than PR? Well if so, it’s clever enough. Because as long as such transcontinental rail routes continue to roll out, then so do the stories around Beijing’s much fabled One Belt, One Road project. And this not only allows for increased physical links between China and the strategic dots on the Eurasian land mass, it also makes deft allegorical links between Beijing’s current rulers and those who ruled a world-beating empire and who created the original Silk Road millennia ago. It reminds the world who they are and reinforces for the domestic audience a vision of where they want to be.

The UK can only dream of such spin-smart state craft.

Britain does, of course, have a heritage. But next to the Silk Road’s history, the UK is an infant. And an infant whose copybook is blotted by its colonialist, imperialist past. And Empire 2.0, as the government found out last month, is not the play.

Hong Kong rail story comes full circle

Another story involving China and trains caught the UK media’s eye lately, and this too offered a richly layered insight into the current fragility of the British psyche.

“Outrage as Chinese firm gets green light to run British railway,” blared the Daily Mirror on March 27. The tabloid outrage was over MTR Corp winning a seven-year contract to run the UK’s South West Trains network. Mick Cash, leader of the left-leaning Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: “Once again the government have refused to consider the public sector option for a major rail franchise and instead it’s a foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, which is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense.”

But as any Hong Kong resident will quickly point out, the MTR – which also has the contract to operate trains on the trans-London Crossrail route due to open in 2018 – is not really considered Chinese in the town it calls home. It’s as “Made in Hong Kong” as Canto pop, Jacky Chan or sweet and sour pork.

Set up in 1975, the driving force behind the metro train operator was Murray MacLehose, a modernizing colonial governor credited for creating Hong Kong’s highway system, its “new town” program and the famous and often cited crackdown on graft in what had become a very wealthy police force.

The MTR’s first chairman, Norman Thompson, formerly of shipping giant Cunard, was British; so were the system’s first managers and engineers. And so too was its hardware. The first MTR trains came from Metro Cammell of Birmingham.

In 1989, Metro Cammell became part of Alstom. This proud British company with roots stretching back to the dawn of the railways, was shut down in 2005 as part of its French multinational owner’s global rationalization plan. Many of its trains trundle on, including some vintage models on the MTR.

Puffed up or out of steam? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It seems darkly ironic that the UK, which can boast of the oldest railway network in the world, and that spread rail through much of its vast empire and beyond — including into China — can get so excited about sending “whisky, soft drinks, vitamins, pharmaceuticals and baby products” to provincial China.

It is perhaps telling that, amid the dancing dragons and the press releases and the shots of smiling VIPs, no other information was given about the shippers or their products. “Whisky, soft drinks, vitamins, pharmaceuticals and baby products” was the party line. And that was the line trotted out by the press, ad infinitum. It doesn’t sound much like a formula to restore a once-great industrial power to former glory. More like the shopping list for a fetish party.

Last ghost train to Brexit

Taken for a ride? It’s not fun and it ain’t fair. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting then that the third train story to transfix UK media in the past month was about Britain’s intention to leave the EU.

Here the cargo was clearly itemized. It was just a letter. One that started proceeding for Britain’s formal divorce from the European Union. It was sent by hand, from London to Brussels, aboard a Eurostar train.

The train, like all Eurostar trains, was built by Alstom.

The high speed rail network that links the United Kingdom with continental Europe via the 50km Channel Tunnel reveals something of what sets the British apart from their estranged bedfellows on the Continental.

Built by a joint venture between UK and French banks and construction companies, the Chunnel had a long and tortuous birth. The idea had been kicked around by the two nations since the 18th century, with the French typically warmer than the Brits. And that’s how it was with the latest, ultimately successful iteration.

The French side won unanimous parliamentary approval as well as widespread public support. It was a different story in the UK: the green light came only after numerous public consultations resulted in route changes and delays, as well as pledges to parliament that the high speed link from Europe would be rolled out across the UK — something that still has not happened.

When services did finally begin, there was still one major disagreement to resolve.

In France, during dinner, cheese is taken before dessert.

In Britain, it is taken after.

Neither side would budge. But then, in a groundbreaking bilateral decree, they settled on a classic eurofudge: cheese and dessert would be served at the same time. Et voila.

How Brexit, or indeed the never-ending expansion of the Chinese rail network, will change this simple and well thought out arrangement is as yet unknown. Meanwhile, the runaway Brexit rollercoaster creaks and lurches along its predetermined but uncharted tracks. Hold on tight.

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