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China takes rail transport to a new level

Freight trains running at 350 km/h

The days when streamlined, high-speed bullet trains automatically brought to mind names like TGV, Shinkansen or ICE are now behind us. Today, the world leader here is without a doubt the “Middle Kingdom.” The title for the longest high-speed line passed to China in 2012, and it is hardly surprising that China has long topped the rankings when it comes to total high-speed railway kilometers. And yet China is far from finished with its expansion in this area, and Beijing is working hard to significantly increase the length of its network. Over 80% of China’s large cities are now connected by high-speed rail, making it no wonder that the country has now started using these connections for freight transports. Here we take a closer look at this very promising development.

Dense route network could be used for freight

Since China officially launched the construction of a high-speed network in 1997, the routes have seen tremendous growth. While the country’s total rail network of just over 131,000 km currently includes more than 30,000 km of high-speed lines, Beijing is planning an ambitious expansion program to increase this to over 70,000 km in the coming years. Over three quarters of all large Chinese cities are already connected to these high-speed lines. There is obvious value in using these excellent connections for more than just passenger transport. Two occasions recently offered a good glimpse into the possible future of rail-based freight traffic: the construction of a high-speed freight train connection between Wuhan and Beijing in November and the presentation of a specially designed high-speed freight train in December 2020.

Extreme order volumes mean extreme shipping volumes

The motivation for one of these initiatives comes from “Singles’ Day”, also known as “Double Eleven”. This day was first called into being on November 11, 1993 by a group of young, single men at the University of Nanjing to celebrate their singlehood together. Over time, this popular occasion has developed into a major commercial event, and Chinese retailers offer sales and discounts to entice consumers to purchase gifts. Due to the size of the Chinese market, Singles’ Day has now become the world’s biggest online shopping day, surpassing even Black Friday and Cyber Monday. With the magnitude of this shopping extravaganza growing every year, the volume of express shipments has increased tremendously and therefore clever solutions are needed.

Singles’ Day as an occasion for express service

Customers expect to receive the products as quickly as possible, which poses tremendous challenges for all parties involved in the delivery. According to official figures from the Chinese postal service, the total volume of express shipping attributable to Singles’ Days 2019 amounted to an astonishing 2.3 billion packages. In 2020, this is said to have reached 2.97 billion shipments! But how can this demand be met when typical freight trains are too slow and domestic air freight is too expensive and environmentally burdensome? That’s right. The answer lies in the existing high-speed rail connections running at 250 to 300 km/h or more.

To ease the pressure on shipping networks, the first “freight express” was established on November 1, 2020 between the production powerhouse Wuhan and the capital Beijing. At 5:30 a.m., the high-speed train “Fuxing” departed from the Hankou train station of Wuhan in central China: Eight repurposed wagons carrying a total of 40 tons of e-commerce express shipments set out for Beijing at up to 300 kilometers per hour, with just a single intervening stop. At the same time, another train left Beijing’s west train station to arrive in Wuhan at 10:20 a.m.
The wagons of the reconfigured freight train contain no seats and were loaded with two rows of blue freight boxes. It is hard to say at this time whether the decline in passenger traffic due to the pandemic also played a role in addition to the increased demand for e-commerce express shipments. Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to see how this service develops and whether more connections to other cities will be added.

New record holder almost twice as fast

The high-speed freight train presented on December 23, 2020 by state rail vehicle manufacturer China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC) shows that extremely fast freight transport by rail is not a far-off proposition. CRRC is the world’s largest producer and world market leader in high-speed trains. The specialized model, which is designed to transport freight at a speed of 350 km/h, will be manufactured in Tangshan in the northern Chinese province of Hebei.
From the outside, the train resembles a normal passenger train (85 percent of the space is reserved for freight), and the design significantly reduces running resistance and air resistance. At 350 km/h, it leaves the previous fastest freight train, the Italian “Mercitalia Fast”, in the dust. The latter has been operating since November 2018 at a speed of 180 km/h between the southern Italian logistics node of Caserta and Bologna’s Interport, the most important logistics center in northern Italy. Here as well, the motivation was faster processing of e-commerce orders alongside a significant reduction in truck traffic over the same route.

Specially designed for freight transport

The new train has eight wagons and 2.9-meter-wide loading doors to ensure rapid loading and unloading. The loading process is safe and efficient thanks to the use of special rolling containers, similar to those used in air freight. Not only is it the fastest freight train in the world, it can also be operated at extreme temperatures: whether it’s a wintery -25 degrees Celsius in the steppes of northern China or over 40 degrees Celsius on a hot summer day in southern China, the goods can still be transported safely. Only five hours will be needed to cover a distance of 1,500 kilometers. Considering China’s large land area, this means a major boost to domestic supply chains. Even if the populations of major cities in Europe cannot compete with the urban centers of China, a similar development might be worth considering here. After all, Europe is already laced by many of its own high-speed rail routes.

Trendy, but is it practical?

Passenger transport by high-speed train is on the upswing around the world and has proven its value. However, high-speed rail lines typically connect major metropolitan centers, which are not generally the direct destinations of “classic” freight traffic. It is therefore clear that bulk goods like coal, ore and wood will continue to be carried by the “good, old” (and also slow) freight train. Currently, there is also no way to send containers, the world’s standard unit for shipping goods, hurtling across the countryside at 350 km/h. But who knows what technologies await us in the future?
In the meantime, the express delivery of high-value consumer goods and e-commerce orders by high-speed train appears to be a good bet, as long as the necessary infrastructure is in place and it makes sense from a regional perspective. Trucks are too slow, short flights are too expensive and too hard on the environment – leaving an excellent opportunity for the next-generation freight train to carve out its own niche.

Freight Capacities around Chinese New Year

February 12, 2021 marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar. The days from February 12 to 14 are public holidays in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

Capacity bottlenecks are to be expected around the time of Chinese New Year. We have reserved space for you and recommend planning with us as early as possible to be optimally prepared for the holidays. As a faster alternative for sea freight transports from Asia to CEE, our "Adria PRIORITY Express" via Koper, Rijeka and Trieste offers transit times averaging 5-8 days compared to the European northern ports.

As an alternative for urgent shipments, we recommend our Rail Transport service across the New Silk Road. Our Sea Cargo team will be happy to assist you.

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cargo-partner has been represented in China since 2004 and currently operates 17 offices with 313 employees across the country. cargo-partner in China offers a comprehensive range of air, sea, land transport, warehousing and info-logistics solutions for various industries. With its rail transport solutions via the New Silk Road, the company provides weekly consolidation services with full coverage throughout Europe and China.