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HP travels 'modern Silk Road' to cut freight footprint

<p>The electronics giant has revised the Silk Road from China to Europe as a way to cut transportation costs and emissions.</p>

When it comes to reducing emissions related to freight, trains rate better than either trucks or airplanes. With this in mind, high-tech manufacturer Hewlett-Packard negotiated a new rail route to haul notebook computers and displays made at its factories deep in Chongqing, China, out to distributors and customers as far away as Germany.

The line mirrors the fabled Silk Road, the ancient web of paths and routes used to transport spices, gems and silk fabric by camel from their Chinese sources to markets in Europe.

The modern-day edition trailblazed by HP spans 6,700 miles, covers two continents and crosses six countries. It takes about three weeks for HP's express trains to complete a one-way journey, traveling at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour and safeguarded by armed security guards.

"Despite the distance, the journey is cost-effective and better for the environment than air transport, and it's faster than ocean shipping," says HP in a blog post describing the project.

The new rail route was several years in the making. In 2010, HP developed manufacturing facilities in inland and western China to take advantage of government economic incentives. But there was no easy way to get the products out of the region, so the company's supply chain team negotiated with government agencies and rail import/export systems operators in China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany to make the route a reality.

Now, HP dispatches express trains at least once weekly in the summer. The company plans to continue using the route for the time this coming winter, but it had to develop special packaging to protect the devices being transported: Temperatures along the way can plummet to below -4 Fahrenheit, way too cold for most electronics to handle.

According to Tony Prophet, senior vice president of operations for HP printing and personal systems, the rail route offers his company three distinct competitive advantages:

• Environmental benefits: This mode of transportation carries one-thirtieth of the carbon footprint associated with air freight.

• Cost and time savings: Transporting products from remote locations in inland China out to the coast where they can be shipped by air can takes up to 35 days, and it is far more expensive. The rail alternative costs about one-third the price of air transport, estimates HP.

• The promise of better working conditions: By keeping its manufacturing plants in western China, the company is contributing to economic growth in the region and can draw from a larger pool of potential factory workers.

Eventually, the route will be used for other sorts of shipments and by other manufacturers.

Chinese authorities plan 50 trains next year, carrying $1 billion worth of goods, reports The New York Times. The first non-HP train headed north will depart in July with $1.5 million worth of tires, shoes and clothes on board. It will return with German electronics, vehicles, auto parts and medical supplies.

HP was the No. 2 company on the latest Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics ranking and the Newsweek U.S. Green Rankings. It also consistently ranks as a leader for corporate responsibility reporting.

This article originally appeared at Sustainable Business News.

Train image CC license by Loco Steve via Flickr

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