The first UK to China export train departed London this week, after a near three-month pause from when the train arrived from China in January.

The return leg of the journey will see 30 containers of soft drinks, vitamins, pharmaceuticals and baby products heading to Yiwu in the Zhe Jian province in eastern China.

The first consignment of cargo to go by rail comes less than two weeks after the triggering of Article 50 and the start of the formal process of the UK’s departure from the European Union. The move has placed an emphasis on the UK to secure trade deals with countries all over the world.

Greg Hands, minister of state in the Department for International Trade, says: “This new rail link with China is another boost for Global Britain, following the ancient Silk Road trade route to carry UK products around the world.”

Part of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, trains from China to Europe started running in 2012. Since then, some 39 routes connecting 16 Chinese cities with 12 cities in and along the European route have developed. While this may appear impressive, the flow of trade so far has been heavily in one direction, as European exporters are yet to embrace this new service.

According to Chinese container cargo operator OneTwoThree Logistics (OTT Logistics), who is overseeing the transportation and booking of cargo for the UK/China rail freight trains, in the five years up to the end of June 2016, 1,881 trains ran the China-Europe routes. Of these, only 502 were doing the leg back to China with European goods.

The new freight trains have been marketed as faster than shipping and cheaper than air. According to OTT Logistics, the cost of rail freight is half that of air, and transport times are twice as fast as the 30-odd days by sea.

While market observers expect the trains to put some pressure on air cargo, the limited capacity of the trains (which can take 30 to 50 containers) compared to that of ship carriers (which can carry as many as 11,000) is unlikely to make it a major competitor for shipping just yet.

Departing from DP World London Gateway, the train will travel through the channel tunnel into France and Belgium before calling in at Duisburg, Germany. It will then proceed through Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazahkstan before it reaches Yiwu.