China-Europe freight trains support economic lifeline amid pandemic
Though the outbreak of COVID-19 had grounded Europeans for months and impacted the economy as a whole, some sectors such as electronics businesses have spotted niches with surging demands for laptops and other gadgets at home.
Lu Hong, a local brand director of laptop manufacturer ASUS in Southwest China's Chongqing municipality, found such a niche and witnessed a business boom in 2020. However, before long, shortage of sea freighters, price hikes and unpredictable shipping time pushed him to the verge of breaking contracts.
A silver lining brought by China-Europe freight trains has boosted fragile supply chains in Eurasian countries and saved businesses in both China and Europe.
Solution to supply disruption
Lu's company last year hired some 1,000 containers to deliver computers through China-Europe freight train services across the Eurasian continent.
Though its prices are a little higher than seaborne shipping, the train service provided by China Railway Express (CRE) has the advantage of a relatively stable schedule, which takes as short as 12 days to get to Europe from China hinging on specific departures and destinations.
"Due to the pandemic containment measures, there are many disruptions of sea transportation ... Now it's very hard to get enough containers and the prices are skyrocketing," said Lu.
The past year was tough for many business operators like Lu, since volatile air and ocean freight capacities had resulted in soaring shipping prices.
Similarly, Chinese car manufacturer Changan Ford Automobile also turned to the train route, though in a reverse direction, to tackle its supply problems caused by the pandemic.
Upon the outbreak of COVID-19, Changan's assembly line was nearly suspended, due to the delay and disruption of the shipping of auto supplies from Spain.
The company urgently rerouted the transportation of supplies with cargo trains passing by Germany's Duisburg city, which took some 20 days to reach Chongqing, said Zhuang Changbo, logistics supervisor at Changan Ford Automobile, adding, "It saved some 50 days compared to sea transportation."
Anti-pandemic "green passage"
Traffic through the CRE surged 75 percent year-on-year to 3,398 trains in January-March, after topping the annual record in 2020 with 12,406 trains, according to the China State Railway Group.
Besides auto parts, clothes, toys and electronics, some overstocked airmails from China to Europe are also diverted to CRE trains departing from Chinese cities including Chongqing, Yiwu and Guangzhou.
Notably, life-saving medical supplies and raw materials were also transported to Europe by freight trains, when countries along the route were synergizing efforts to combat the coronavirus.
Official data showed that around 94,000 tonnes of anti-pandemic supplies were sent through the route, with special trains carrying surgical masks, medical gloves, water-soluble bags, contactless gel dispensers and other supplies to Poland's Malaszewicze, Germany's Duisburg, Spain's Madrid and France's Paris.
Volker Tschapke, honorary president of Germany's Prussian Society, called the train route an anti-pandemic "Green Passage," noting that "Europe was rather desperately encountering the first wave of COVID if you remember. (Medical) shortages were seen everywhere. The train routes were vital and they save lives."