Cargo trains running between China and the EU, including South Korea and Japan more recently, have steadily increased since the first “Trans-Eurasian-Express” set off from Xiangtang and arrived in Hamburg on 06OCT08, triggering the era of trans-Eurasian freight trains. Lately, the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused considerable capacity bottlenecks in sea and air transport, has acted as an accelerator. However, trans-Eurasian cargo trains will probably never become a real challenger to maritime transport.
In 2020, around 878,000 standard containers (TEU) were railed in both directions across the vast Eurasian land bridge, the consultancy Roland Berger estimates. The association of freight
transport by rail (union internationale des chemins de fer - UIC) expects this figure to double within the next 4 years.
Even though these are still predictions, freight trains have already become firmly established in transporting goods on this more than 10,000 km long transcontinental route, as a supplement or even alternative to shipping and air services. Whether this remains the case also depends on how the Lukashenko regime reacts to the sanctions imposed by the EU following the hijacking of a Ryaiair jetliner, which are expected to be tightened soon. Affected by countermeasures could be the transport sector, he said in a recent speech (CargoForwarder Global 30MAY21).
For European enterprises running production plants in China’s hinterland, cargo trains are often a more convenient option to ocean freight due to considerable time advantages. For example, a standard container shipped from Antwerp, Hamburg, or Rotterdam to central or western China via Hong Kong or Shanghai, takes between 40 to 45 days to arrive at its final destination. In contrast, if steel boxes are railed to cities located in the central Chinese province of Hubei, for instance, they need 14 to 16 days which reduces the capital commitment costs substantially.
As far as prices are concerned, there was a slight alignment between ocean and rail during the pandemic. Currently, railing a 20-foot container eastbound from Hamburg to Zhengzhou costs around 9,500 USD or westbound 11,000 USD from Wuhan to Pardubice in the Czech Republic, while shipping companies charge roughly 2,000 USD for a similar service.
There is still room for improvement
Despite the increased importance of freight trains and their environmental advantages compared to flying or sailing, shipping still remains the dominant factor in the transport of goods between Far East and the EU in terms of tonnage. Around four-fifths of all EU imports and even 80% of EU exports to non-member countries are transported by sea. And despite fast growing volumes, only 2.4% of all EU imports coming from China arrive by rail (source: Eurostat). The fact that this percentage ratio between ship and train does not change significantly is also due to the burgeoning goods flows between China and the EU, from which both modes of transport benefit simultaneously, including air freight.
Cooperation in onward transportation
Metrans, a subsidiary of port and logistics company HHLA, has become one of the major providers of container trains on routes between the EU and the Far East. Currently, 60 to 80 Metrans trains run between Europe and important economic centers in China, including Zhengzhou, Xi'an and Jinhua, each month. However, the rail company mainly focuses on the intra-European distribution of containers coming from China or sent from the EU to destinations in the Far East. This is enabled by their large intermodal rail network in Central and Eastern Europe. Every week, 550 Metrans trains crisscross Europe, and more than a million TEU empty containers are handled at the depots. Metrans operates trucks to cover the proverbial “last mile”.
Last year, the Hamburg-based company handled a total of 913 trains (2019: 426 trains) from and to China. This is an increase of 114%, with the largest growth (+131%) in imports. Metrans' transport volume on the Eurasian land bridge was thus around 30,000 TEU. At first glance, an impressive figure, but it corresponds to just two vessels able to carry 15,000 TEU each. Dozens of these sail every week on routes connecting the EU and China, which illustrates the ongoing dwarf-like role of rail transport compared to shipping, despite its growing influence.
We always welcome your comments to our articles. However, we can only publish them when the sender name is authentic.