China-Europe freight route a ‘crucial lifeline’

The new route, spanning over 10,000 kilometers in about 35 days, seamlessly integrates rail and ocean transportation, crossing the Caspian and Black seas to reach its final destination in Italy — a journey significantly faster than traditional maritime routes to Southern Europe.


A freight train departed from Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and headed to Europe last month. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

June 3, 2024

BEIJING – The China-Europe freight train service has emerged as a crucial lifeline for enterprises grappling with supply chain disruptions, exemplified by a recent milestone where a freight train carrying ketchup successfully traversed from Urumqi in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to Salerno, Italy.

The new route, spanning over 10,000 kilometers in about 35 days, seamlessly integrates rail and ocean transportation, crossing the Caspian and Black seas to reach its final destination in Italy — a journey significantly faster than traditional maritime routes to Southern Europe.

Xinjiang Tianshun Supply Chain Co, a logistics and supply chain management company based in Urumqi, is one of the first companies to use the service.

It is a major logistics company that transport ketchup from Xinjiang to Europe, which heavily relied on the maritime transportation. But the Red Sea Crisis caused the company’s tons of ketchup to be stranded at Tianjin Port since the Spring Festival in February.

Since April, the company began to use the China-Europe freight train’s new route to transport ketchup from Xinjiang to Europe.

“We have had over 10,000 tons of ketchup piled up in Tianjin Port since the Spring Festival (because of the Red Sea attacks),” said Ding Zhiping, president of the company.

“However, thanks to the new set-scheduled train service between Xinjiang and Italy, it has swiftly resolved our logistical challenges, boosting export volumes, shortening transit times and enhancing operational efficiency,” he said.

Since April, the company has dispatched approximately 50 standard containers filled with ketchup from Xinjiang, totaling 7,200 tons.

Xinjiang stands as a key ketchup production hub, annually exporting around 700,000 tons to European markets like Italy and Spain.

Renowned as one of the world’s top three tomato processing regions, China dominates global tomato trade, with Xinjiang playing a pivotal role as the nation’s primary tomato processing hub — contributing 80 percent of the country’s tomato production and 70 percent of its tomato sauce exports, representing a quarter of global trade. Notably, one of every four bottles of tomato sauce worldwide originates from Xinjiang.

With over 200 tomato processing enterprises, Xinjiang accounts for over 80 percent of China’s tomato processing industry.

Ding elaborated on the cost and time savings facilitated by the China-Europe freight train service, highlighting its economic advantages over traditional sea routes.

“There are two types of costs (in logistics) – money and time. If the ketchup were to ship by sea, taking the route around the Cape of Good Hope, it could cost nearly $5,000 per container to reach Italy. However, with the current westward route via the China-Europe freight train service, the cost is approximately $4,200 per container,” he said.

“In terms of time, it may take around two and a half months to depart from Tianjin Port and reach Italy, and the rail journey typically spans 30 to 35 days. These reduced costs have led to increased efficiency,” he added.

Xinjiang is also a major hub for the freight service. A large number of China-Europe freight trains departed from Urumqi, and passed through the Alataw Pass and Horgos border port in the region, serving as a pivotal link connecting China to Europe via Eurasia, streamlining the movement of goods and enhancing trade efficiency.

The successful transportation of ketchup underscores the strategic significance of the China-Europe freight train service in fostering seamless trade connections between China and Europe, offering a reliable and efficient alternative for businesses navigating global supply chain challenges, which has been signified during global crisis, such as the Red Sea attacks.

Reliable alternative

Houthis in Yemen have been attacking commercial ships “affiliated with and bound for Israel” since November in what they described as an act of solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Their actions have raised the risks for transportation companies moving cargo through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, resulting in a surge in rates and lengthy delays.

The Red Sea is an essential part of the ocean freight passage linking Europe and Asia. About 60 percent of Chinese trade with Europe transits through the Suez Canal, which involves passing through the Red Sea, according to a recent report by Fitch Ratings.

Some smaller-volume goods have shifted to rail transportation, notably on the China-Europe railway line, where the capacity to transport goods from China to the continent has increased significantly from the pre-crisis level, according to the report.

Kang Yingfeng, deputy general manager of China Railway International Multimodal Transportation, said there had been a significant increase in inquiries about the China-Europe freight train service since the beginning of this year. CRIMT is the national operator of the China-Europe freight train service and a subsidiary of China Railway Container Transport.

“Chinese, European and American customers, as well as large international logistics companies such as DHL and Kuehne+Nagel, have shown strong interest in the new route passing the transcontinental maritime routes, attracting freight from China to Georgia, Turkiye, and Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Southern Europe,” he told China Daily in a recent interview.

Now Ding’s company has used the route as a regular choice for transporting ketchup.

Fu Cong, China’s former ambassador to the European Union, called the freight service “a flagship project of China-EU Belt and Road cooperation that has stood out as a land-based alternative that provides rapid, stable and reliable solutions to the massive flow of goods between both sides” amid “the complex and turbulent geopolitical situation, especially since the outbreak of the Red Sea crisis”.

He made the remarks in March in a signed article published on Euractiv, a European news website focused on EU policy issues. “It is fair to say that the China-Europe Railway Express has become a lifeline for China-EU trade at this critical moment,” he said.

Another milestone

The freight train service has recently achieved another significant milestone by completing its 90,000th journey as of May 25, underscoring its crucial role in stabilizing global supply chains and driving economic development along the route.

Began in 2011, the China-Europe freight train service has transported over 8.7 million containers with goods valued at more than $380 billion between China and Europe, according to the company.

The remarkable growth in the number of services reflects strong market demand. This mode of transportation is more cost-effective than air travel and more reliable than sea transport, serving as a strategic and alternative option for international freight.

The annual number of services has surged from a few dozen at the beginning to over 17,000 last year. The growth has become more prominent since 2016.

Between 2016 and 2023, the annual number of China-Europe freight trains increased from 1,702 to over 17,000, representing nearly a tenfold growth with an average annual growth rate of 39.5 percent.

So far, the network of the China-Europe freight train has reached to 223 cities in 25 European countries, connecting more than 100 cities in Asia.

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