It is tempting to believe the old Silk Road is being revived by locomotives. The first rail service from Amsterdam to China began this month, expanding a network that China has made a signature feature of its Belt and Road Initiative. Such services, spanning continents and regions, have grown significantly in recent years, but recent research suggests that like other aspects of the BRI, their economic importance is less game-changing than advertised.
In his speech at the Belt and Road Forum last May, Chinese President Xi Jinping touted China-Europe rail services as an example of practical cooperation along the BRI routes. Chinese state-media heavily promote the announcement of a new service and rattle off impressive growth statistics.