Why companies are turning to long-haul trains


The train was carrying more than three dozen 40-foot containers, each stuffed with goods such as party balloons and car parts, from Xi’an to Paris. It had traveled through China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France, making the journey in five and a half weeks.

“Five years ago, there were eight trains per day between China and Europe, now there are 18, 20 trains per day,” said Xavier Wanderpepen, director of the China-Europe freight trains at French national railway company SNCF.

Rail shipments are especially popular with companies that need to move perishable or time-sensitive goods and don’t want to pay for air cargo. Containers can travel between Europe and China via rail in as few as 20 days, while a journey by sea can take up to 70 days with disruptions caused by the pandemic. But rail has its limitations: trains cannot carry nearly as many containers as ships, and they are not immune to logistics snafus related to the pandemic.

Workers at Valenton station, in France, unloading a train that arrived from Xi'an, China, on December 14, 2021.

The train that CNN Business tracked from China to France, for example, was nearly two weeks late arriving in Paris because of traffic on the tracks, lengthy customs checks at the Polish border and a shortage of train drivers in Germany caused by the pandemic.

Still, more trains are coming.

Launched in 2011 as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure program, the China-Europe rail service expanded quickly as the pandemic wreaked havoc on global shipping, making it much more expensive to send products via sea.

A record 15,000 freight train trips were made between China and Europe in 2021, up 82% from the pre-pandemic total in 2019, according to Chinese state media. The trains carried 1.46 million containers.

What's next for supply chains after the holiday rush

The number of trains between France and China doubled between 2019 and 2021, according to Wanderpepen, even though France came to the market later than other European countries.

The sharp increase in rail traffic is already causing overcrowding on the tracks and putting infrastructure under pressure, meaning that trains between Europe and China offer only a limited alternative to ships — the largest of which carry more than 20,000 20-foot containers.

Containers moving between Europe and China must be switched to new rail cars twice, once at the China-Kazakhstan border and again at the Poland-Belarus border, since former Soviet countries use a different rail gauge than China and Europe.

“We can say that today there are too many trains,” said Wanderpepen.

From crisis to opportunity

The vast network of ports, container vessels and trucking companies that moves goods around the world remains badly tangled two years into the pandemic, and the cost of shipping has skyrocketed.

“We have congestion at seaports; we have a shortage of containers because transportation volumes went up,” said Felix Papier, a supply chain management professor at France’s ESSEC business school. “We have a shortage of logistics workers in different segments around the world.”

Production at 45% of French companies was limited by supply difficulties, according to October survey data published by the country’s National Institute of Statistic and Economic Studies. That’s the highest level since the institute began…



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