Freight trains are increasingly complementing air and sea transport between China and Europe. For a growing number of shippers and forwarders rail carriage across the land bridge which spans more than 10,000 kilometers has meanwhile become an alternative to using vessels or planes.
Glasses filled with sparkling wine, hons patting each other on the back, speeches full of optimistic estimates - this was the cheerful scenario at Hamburg-Billwerder station when the first cargo
train coming from Zhengzhou, China and loaded with 51 containers arrived in the northern German metropolis on 2 August of 2013. Meanwhile the weekly number of block trains leaving Henan’s capital
city has grown to three, with two connections returning from West to East. Beginning in August, it will be paired transports, making it three running in each direction.
This seems to be only the beginning, indicated by Yang Xianbo, Chairman of Zhenzhou’s West Cargo Terminal recently. “Technically, we are able to manage up to 12 train departures per week, arriving in Hamburg 12 or 13 days after, depending if running on the further northern (Siberian) track or the southern route crossing Kazakhstan and the South of Russia,” he stated.
13 trains per week
Compared to railing the goods from Zhengzhou to Shanghai where they are loaded on board a Europe-bound vessel it saves an equivalent of about a month, thus reducing capital tie-up and cutting down inventory times. States Yang: “The cost of block train transportation is 50 percent less than that of air freight and the transit time is beating ocean freight threefold.”
While today’s cargo trains crossing the 10,000 km land bridge are on average loaded with 50 TEU, “we could go up to 100 TEU per train if demand keeps on increasing fast,” he states, thus doubling today’s capacity offer.
Main products traveling on trains from East to West are printers, electronics, spare parts, grain, fruit, garments, shoes, toys and many consumer goods. E-commerce goods standing on the load list, accounting for up to 10 percent of the freight, complement this enumeration. In the opposite direction, it is mainly automobiles and car components, machinery parts, household goods, frozen products and chemical engineering brought by train to Chinese consignees.
Aiming at a 16 percent share
Despite its steadily growing share, rail freight traffic still accounts for less than one percent of all transports on the sector Europe-Far East. This portion however could go up to astonishing 16 percent, estimates General Secretary José Viegas of the OECD’s International Transport Forum (ITF). This would require cargo trains running at a faster speed, averaging at least 60 km/h also at challenging climatic conditions in the winter months, electronic data transmission to minimize border controls and political stability to avoid disruptions of the supply chain spanning across the vast trans-Eurasian land corridor.