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Severe backlog in Europe-bound trains at Chinese border, as coronavirus increases rail freight volume

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 6/7/2020 Karen Yeung karen.yeung@scmp.com
a sign on the side of a building: A police officer checks an outbound China-Europe freight train at Khorgos Pass in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photo: Xinhua © XINHUA A police officer checks an outbound China-Europe freight train at Khorgos Pass in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photo: Xinhua

A Chinese rail freight operator has cut cargo services to central Europe amid a backlog of trains waiting at the Chinese border to leave the country, the 21st Century Business Herald reported on Saturday.

Chengdu International Railway Service said it cut the number of its trains leaving Alashan in Xinjiang for central Europe to two from six between June 27 and 30, with the timetable for July to be adjusted depending on rail traffic conditions.

The company said that its decision followed an announcement from state-owned railroad operator China Railway of severe congestion at the freight terminals in Alashan and Khorgos, cities on China's western border with Kazakhstan.

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"Due to terminal congestion, it is possible that some trains will experience delayed deliveries in the near future, with some shipments finding it difficult to meet their delivery times," Chengdu International Railway Service said in a statement to shippers dated June 30. "Your company should make the appropriate arrangements and external explanations."

Citing the head of a China-Europe train company, the report said the main reason for the backlog was that more cities had started rail services to central Europe this year.

"Additionally, some maritime and air freight orders were switched to rail due to the impact of the (coronavirus) epidemic, resulting in the rapid growth in the number of trains to central Europe, exceeding terminal capacities for cargo loading," the report said

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Several cargo shippers were quoted as saying that they had been notified that some of their shipments could not be completed within the agreed time due to the backlogs at border ports.

The backlog of China-Europe trains is also due to the logistic challenges of reloading containers onto new train carriages to cross the territories of the former Soviet Union.

China uses the same standard tracks as most countries in Europe, while Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia use a broader gauge. Rail freight to Europe therefore requires special handling at China's borders with those countries.

The development of a transcontinental rail service linking China, Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe aligns with President Xi Jinping's strategic vision outlined by his Belt and Road Initiative.

Many local governments rushed to launch train services through the vast Central Asian territory between China and Europe to show their support for Beijing's geopolitical strategy. But China Railway admitted in August that a significant amount of cargo containers between China and Europe were in fact empty.

Coronavirus: China reports surprising rail freight growth in February despite factory activity tumbling

This year, the operations of China-Europe train companies grew rapidly because of the coronavirus epidemic.

For example, at Alashan, the most important port for China-Europe trains, the average number of daily entries and exits was only five trains in February, sharply lower than the average daily rate of nine to 10 trains in 2019. However, by March the number of China-Europe trains entering and leaving the country rebounded to 11 before rising further to 14 in April, and is currently as high as 19 in a single day.

The Changan terminal in Xian handled 1,667 China-Europe trains between January and June, nearly twice as many as the 846 trains in the same period last year. The total weight of goods shipped was 1.301 million tonnes, 1.9 times the same period last year.

Chengdu's China-Europe train traffic increased by 63 per cent this year through May.

The China-Europe Train Construction Development Plan (2016-2020) proposed a target of 5,000 China trains between China and Europe by the end of this year, but this goal was already exceeded in 2018, reaching 6,300 that year and increasing to 8,225 in 2019.

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