China – Europe freight rail: a viable transport alternative?

China’s push to build commercial links across Europe and Asia saw the opening of a new modern-day Silk Road freight railway route, launched in 2017.

IPL Packaging recently put this rail service to the test.

Says Faizal Kassim, IPL Logistics Director, “In a bid to put the rail route’s claimed transit times and service to the test, IPL Packaging used a trial shipment pallet that wasn’t time sensitive and would not would prove problematic if delayed,” he explains.

The freight train traveled from Shenzhen, China, to Dartford, United Kingdom, covering a distance of roughly 5000 miles in a 23-day time-span and moving through 9 countries in a bid to move goods over this mammoth distance.

“According to transport agents the rail option provided a 20-23 day transit time (compared with 35-40 days for sea freight). Research reveals that cost-wise, in most cases, it also equates to approximately double that of sea freight and half that of airfreight,” says Faizal.

“We essentially wanted to determine if there were any hidden customs processes or formalities in case we required this service for a time sensitive project,” he continues. “We also had concerns around any thermal shock the goods would be exposed to when railing through the colder regions in Russia, for example.”

“The goods needed to travel through China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK. They departed timeously from Shenzhen in South China to Wuhan where they were consolidated and then sent on to Poland,” he says. ”This process took 18 days, whilst the transit from Poland to the UK took another 5 days.”

“The service up until Poland was successful and matched what was promised by the agents. Although we did, however, experience slight difficulties in expediting the goods from Poland to the UK, the shipment reached its UK destination within the 23 day time period,” says Faizal.

“When comparing rail option to the sea freight option, where the transit time is also 23 days from South China to Felixestowe, these are certainly on a par. However, once you factor in the separate departure times from China and the feeder vessel transit from Felixestowe to Grangemouth, there is undoubtedly a time advantage with rail,” he explains. “Timing relating to direct deliveries to mainland European destinations would be even more favourable”.

“An important consideration with the rail option is the 10-day prior booking requirement, with penalties for cancellation. This does not allow for any delays in manufacturing, meaning that in instances where we consider rail as an option, it would be under very narrow parameters as these costs would not justify the saving in time,” he continues.

“All in all, there are still some improvements to be made before IPL would consider this a viable option on a more ongoing basis,” says Faizal.

“These would include improvements to infrastructure (the rail currently utilises two separate rail gauges which means goods have to be taken off one train and transferred to another) to improve transits further. Those companies transporting goods would also benefit from a “true” Shenzhen to Europe direct rail service,” he says.

“Currently, transport agents truck goods from Shenzhen to Wuhan and this adds more time,” he says. “There is also room for improvement in customs formalities over the several countries along the route. We expected these issues to be ironed out as the service becomes increasing established.”

“No doubt, in due course, this will become a very viable transport alternative, especially for deliveries where time saving measures outweigh the extra costs involved,” he concludes.

For more info:

Freight train begins first journey from UK to China