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China-Europe rail links prove vital

By ZHONG NAN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-04-08 09:22
A China-Europe cargo train departs from Yiwu, East China's Zhejiang province, to Madrid on March 20, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Freight train services linking Chinese cities with Europe are becoming increasingly popular with traders on both sides, as commercial activities of shipping companies and airlines are suspended or restricted due to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to business executives.

Many container ports in Italy, Spain and Portugal have been temporarily shut because of the pandemic or are facing severe curbs on the movement of people and vessels, the China Chamber of International Commerce has advised Chinese export-oriented companies several times since mid-March.

The Beijing-based chamber said container availability is dwindling sharply at major European ports such as Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp, which is causing shipment problems for exporters in China and Europe alike.

In addition to suspension of service and flight cuts imposed by European carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa Group and Air France-KLM during the past two months, China's Civil Aviation Administration cut the number of international flights in and out of the country late last month to curb contagion via air travel and to contain the rising number of imported infections.

Because there isn't much room for Chinese companies to lease belly-hold cargo space in the passenger aircraft of domestic and European airlines, China Post Group Corp announced it will launch regular freight train service to a number of European cities from Southwest China's Chongqing municipality and East China's Yiwu, Zhejiang province.

Liu Aili, the chairman of China Post, said rail lines connecting China and Europe are able to ship a large amount of goods and medical materials within 15 days to and from both sides, after a number of countries tightened control of or closed their ports and airports, causing delays in the distribution of goods.

The State-owned enterprise started its second self-organized train service from Chongqing to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on April 3 after launching service from Yiwu to Poland on March 27.The train has carried 44 rail containers with 300 metric tons of epidemic prevention goods, as well as mail, to Lithuania on a 10-day journey.

The Chinese enterprise will provide goods to a total of 36 European Union and non-EU countries, including Spain, Denmark, France, Cyprus, Switzerland and Norway, via local delivery after arriving at Vilnius.

China Post plans to run rail cargo service on the route once or twice a week, with 50 rail containers each time, to facilitate China-EU trade activities and offer European countries confidence in resuming production and maintaining stable trade with China.

The pandemic has highlighted the rail services' strategic value in ensuring the global supply chain and the growth of the Belt and Road Initiative, Liu said.

In the first quarter of this year, 1,941 freight train trips were conducted between China and Europe, a year-on-year increase of 15 percent, while 174,000 standard-size shipping containers were transported, an 18 percent increase, according to data from China State Railway Group.

The State railroad operator said the number of trips from China to Europe during that period was 1,049, with a total of 95,000 containers, while the number of trips from Europe to China stood at 892, with 79,000 containers,

Such service hit a record monthly high in March, with cargo transport operations surging 30 percent year-on-year to 809 trips, with a total of 73,000 containers.

Since China also needs to import a large number of industrial parts, precision instruments, chemical products, medical equipment and pharmaceutical products from Europe, the transcontinental freight train services have proved they can help enterprises on both sides sustain business, said Luo Renjian, a researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission's Institute of Transportation Research.

Sinotrans Ltd, a subsidiary of China Merchants Group, has organized freight train service between Shenyang, Liaoning province, in Northeast China and European cities such as Hamburg and Duisburg, Germany; Enns, Austria; and Malaszewicze and Warsaw, Poland, during the first quarter of this year.

The company launched another cargo train service from Changsha in Central China's Hunan province to Moscow in late March. The first train carried epidemic prevention materials, electromechanical equipment, shoes, toys, garments and plastic products to Moscow. It plans to operate the service once a week and may go to twice a week, depending on market demand.

Li Jianhong, the chairman of China Merchants Group, said epidemic constraints in several countries prompted the company to come out with "plan B "solutions, such as increasing the frequency of transcontinental train services and ocean-torail services to assist domestic exporters as they resume production and exports.

Sweden-based automaker Volvo Cars shipped 3,377 vehicles to Europe via China-Europe cargo train services from Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province in Northwest China, during the first quarter of the year.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of its takeover by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, Volvo has decided to further support the development of the Belt and Road Initiative through the China-Europe railroad. This will expand the global appeal of China's high-end manufacturing industry, said Yuan Xiaolin, the president and CEO of Volvo Car Asia-Pacific.

Yuan said the group's three manufacturing bases have already resumed production, and its logistics capabilities related to Europe have recovered. Volvo exports vehicles manufactured in China to more than 80 countries and regions.

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