China has been promoting the operation of China-Europe freight trains to ensure the secure, stable and smooth operation of the international supply chain. During the Covid-19 pandemic especially, the trains, loaded with electronic goods, mechanical parts and daily necessities, departed from cities across China for Poland, Germany and other European countries. They have played an important role as a strategic link between China and Europe. Last year, China State Railway Group, the national railway network operator, decided to provide services for the high-quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), achieving remarkable results. Last year, 16,000 freight trains linking China and Europe operated in both directions, a year-on-year rise of 9%. The trains carried 1.6 million containers. In 2020, the trains made 12,400 such trips, carrying more than 1.13 million goods containers.
Since 2011, when the first China-Europe freight train departed from Chongqing, the service has developed significantly, gradually becoming a calling card for transportation between China and Europe. The service currently links 108 cities in China with 208 cities in 25 countries. In the past decade, more than 65,000 such trains have operated, carrying 6.04 million containers, China State Railway Group said.
This year, the number of China-Europe freight trains continues to rise. Last month, more than 1,000 China-Europe freight trains left China via land ports in Xinjiang. Among them, 497 trains passed through the Alataw Pass Station carrying 1.11 million metric tons of cargo, a year-on-year rise of 12.8%, while 594 China-Europe freight trains passed through the station at Horgos Port carrying 818,000 tons of cargo, up 26.8% from the same month last year. As the number of freight trains steadily rises, more attention is being paid to improving efficiency and the quality of service.
Last month, China Railway Urumqi Group, which operates services in Xinjiang, adjusted the transportation plan for the China-Europe freight trains to provide holiday cover — including receiving and sorting cargo carriers — during the Spring Festival break so the trains could remain operational 24 hours a day. The operator has improved cooperation with local customs authorities to employ digital services that allow trains to obtain faster customs clearance, improving efficiency and reducing the time freight trains need to wait at the border. As a result, the clearance time for outbound China-Europe freight trains at Alataw Pass has been reduced to five hours, the group said.
In March 2011, China launched its first cross-border rail freight service from Chongqing to Duisburg, Germany. Over the past 12 years, that one route has developed into a network with access to cities in 25 countries, covering all European countries and regions and forming a Eurasian international logistics corridor, according to the China State Railway Group. In 2017, a development plan issued by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) highlighted the rail links as crucial to the Belt and Road Initiative.
When the service started, the trains carried a limited range of goods – mainly electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers. So far, the service has transported more than 50,000 types of goods, including clothing, automobiles, grain, wine, coffee beans and wood. The rich variety of products can meet all the needs of people along all the routes, according to Xu Jianping, Director of the Department of Regional Opening-up at the NDRC.
The China-Europe freight train service is cheaper and greener than other means of transport because the cost is about 20% that of air freight, while the journey time is about 25% of transportation by sea, Xu said. Compared with air and sea transportation, the freight trains are more stable and less affected by the natural environment, thereby attracting products with greater added value.
As the Covid-19 pandemic hit the global supply chain in the past three years, especially in 2020 and 2021, the freight train service served as an important route to stabilize distribution channels across the world. On March 21, 2020, the first China-Europe freight train carrying epidemic supplies departed Yiwu in Zhejiang province and headed to Madrid, Spain, to assist in the battle against the disease. The service also cooperated with Chinese and international enterprises, such as Dell and Lenovo, to offer logistics during the pandemic, the China Daily reports.