Slow-steaming by shipping lines, the shift of production centers in China inland and the easing of customs barriers in Eastern Europe are rapidly opening up overland transport routes between Asia and Europe.
Trans-Russia routes from China into Eastern Europe and the ancient Silk Road via Kazakhstan are all seeing rising volumes. Forwarders claim Asia-Europe intermodal transport is becoming increasingly competitive and are ramping up service portfolios, with transits of less than 10 days now being offered by some on services from China to Germany, more than twice the speed of comparable ocean services.
Tatiana Serova, commercial director, A.R.T. Logistics, a Central Asia specialist forwarder, said cross-border paper work and customs procedures at the borders between the European Union and the former Soviet Union had historically led to delays for cargo in both directions. “However the joint customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan introduced in 2010 has resulted in easier and faster intra-FSU transit times,” she said.
Swiss forwarder Panalpina is currently offering Asia-Europe multimodal and rail-only services on request but plans to roll out a “fully developed” product later this year. “Door-to-door transit times are definitely faster than sea, even more so with slow-steaming,” said a spokesman. “This mode is usually used for fast-moving consumer and retail goods, oil and gas as well as heavy industry equipment. Interestingly, the telecom and high-tech industries are showing increased interest, too.”
DHL Global Forwarding opened a second route to Europe from Asia last month when it started a weekly service from Chengdu to serve the growing number of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in central China. This uses rail services via China and Kazakhstan to move cargo to DHL’s intermodal hub in Małaszewicze, Poland, and onward to destinations around Europe.
DHL claims the new service offers delivery time reductions of between 10 and 21 days compared to sea freight, depending on origin and destination pairs, as well as reduced CO2 emission compared to air freight. The new Chengdu service is an addition to a daily DHL service from Shanghai that runs along the trans-Siberian North Corridor and offers transit times of just eight days.
“Our rail/road multi-modal service has so far focused on high value, automotive and high tech goods, like electronics,” said Kelvin Leung, CEO, Asia Pacific, DHL Global Forwarding. “We are now developing the solution further to transfer our success to the chemicals, spare parts and white goods sectors. In addition to China, we are also looking to expand the coverage of this service to include key North Asian economies, such as Japan and Korea, in the near future.”
Serova said west-bound cargo from China and Southeast Asia to Central Asia and the FSU using rail is now highly competitive versus deep-sea transportation via EU maritime hubs. “If we look at, for example, China – Kazakhstan or other Central Asian destinations, then the container rail mode is both faster and more cost-efficient,” she told the JOC.
“Asia to Central Asia west-bound rail will grow because of sustained economic growth in both regions. We are also expecting to see steady volumes on EU to Central Asia.”
However, barriers remain. Panalpina spokesman said rail infrastructure is heavily used, and bottlenecks make it difficult to handle current volumes. “Time and huge investments are needed to overcome this,” he added. “In the end the aspect of reliability will decide how rail will develop.”
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