China-Europe rail freight up 47%

Multi-modal transport has been sought-after in the wake of COVID-19, leading to a boom in intercontinental rail traffic

Intercontinental freight travelling between China and Europe has increased dramatically as a result of COVID-19 disruptions.

Traffic reached the busiest level yet recorded, with 976 trains departing in April, which is a 47% increase on the same period in the prior year.  

Blank sailings by major cargo lines to support fragile shipping rates and a mass cull of air freight capacity, as commercial airlines stopped flying, created major headaches for many supply chains, particularly for those trying to ship time-sensitive loads.

This has pushed long-distance rail freight into the limelight as a mode of sending relatively high volumes of freight reliably and within weeks between major population centres in Europe and China.

Freight typically takes 24 days to pass between China and the UK and around two weeks to move between China and mainland Western Europe. This provides a means of transportation between expedited maritime transport and air freight, albeit at a noticeably higher cost than by sea.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic has brought aviation to a standstill, shippers are seeing freight trains as a faster alternative to shipping,” says Tony Cole, head of supply chain services at Davies Turner. “As liner operators have blanked sailings to reduce capacity and maintain utilisation levels, shippers are presented both with cost and time constraints.”

This demand has pushed arrivals of trains at the major European inland port of Duisburg up to 50 trains per week from usual levels of between 35 and 40 trains.

COVID-19 has been a major boon for European-Chinese rail freight, which has struggled to develop into a major route throughout its near-decade long history due to cost issues. As supply chain managers look to diversify routes between key sources of supply and end-markets, this could mark the start of long-term growth.

The Chinese government is hoping this is the case as Caixin reported that Beijing is planning to spend $28.5 million on a set of five new logistics centres in Zhengzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, Xi’an and Urumqi with the express intention of improving multi-modal capacity and reducing costs.

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