Cross-border freight trains link inland China with world
Updated: September 19, 2023 10:09 China Daily

On Sunday, customers were seen shopping at a retail store at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Henan province. Some read the labels of the products carefully, some window shopped and some used mobile phones to check product prices on other e-commerce platforms.

"I bought some green bean cake from Malaysia. I don't know what it will taste like but it's worth a try," a customer said while lining up to pay.

The store, like duty-free stores at airports, sells imported products, mostly carried by freight trains from Europe and Central Asia to the inland city. The products include cosmetics, wine, beverages and snacks.

Similar stores are also set up in cities across the province by Henan Central China Railway Tourism Group.

"The China-Europe freight train has become a link for global partners to share benefits from the Belt and Road Initiative. We are trying to bring the benefits from the cross-border freight train to local residents," said Han Wei, general manager of the group.

Zhengzhou, capital of the inland province of Henan, has extended its links with the world via cross-border freight trains.

The first China-Europe freight train departed from Zhengzhou in 2013.

"At the beginning of the operation, there was one service each month, but now there are as many as 34 train services every week," said Li Wenbiao, Party chief of the Putian freight railway station in Zhengzhou, where all such trains depart from the city.

The station has adjusted its facilities and service systems to cater to the increasing number of China-Europe freight trains, such as adding more tracks at the station, building operation lines to cater to containers and launching a system to prevent containers from uncoupling from each other, Li said.

Since the launch of the service, more than 8,400 freight train services carrying 730,000 containers have operated between Zhengzhou and Europe. Among them, more than 4,300 are outbound services and about 4,000 are inbound trips, according to China Railway Zhengzhou Group, the regional service operator.

Its network has extended to more than 140 cities in over 40 countries.

Priority routes

China's two major railways — the north-south Beijing-Guangzhou Railway and the east-west Lanzhou-Lianyungang Railway — meet in Zhengzhou, which means that freight trains from east, west, north and south pass through the city.

About 10 percent of all freight trains across China stop at Zhengzhou North Railway Station for a number of reasons, including inspections, recoupling and sorting work.

Zhengzhou North has one of the largest marshaling yards in China, boasting a complicated fan-shaped network of tracks and switches where railway cars can be sorted and connected to trains that will head in different directions.

There are intertwined railway tracks and countless engines waiting to be coupled. Inspection workers walk through the trains and examine the status of each car to ensure that none has been damaged during their journey.

At the busy station, employees see China-Europe freight train service as a priority.

"We always spare one or two operation lines for China-Europe freight trains, to ensure the train can be ready soon after its arrival," said Zhi Hui, Party chief of the station's dispatch plant.

When a China-Europe freight train has been recoupled at Zhengzhou North, they will go through thorough inspections.

"The team that examines China-Europe freight trains is made up of the most experienced inspectors. They can spot the size of a plate that is critical to the train's braking system with their bare eyes," said Ma Tianyi, head of a plant which manages the trains' inspection from China Railway Zhengzhou Group.

If the plate is thinner than 20 millimeters, it has to be replaced.

"When examining a train, inspectors have to change about 30 such plates," he said.

It takes about 4 hours to inspect one train.

When the train passes inspection at Zhengzhou North, it goes to the Putian freight railway station to be readied for its cross-continent journey.

On Sunday, a fully loaded train carrying a variety of products including medical equipment, auto parts, toys, food, furniture and home appliances departed from Zhengzhou's Putian station, heading via Erenhot bound for Hamburg, Germany. The journey will take about 15 days.

Customer approval

The safe and reliable service has attracted an increasing number of clients.

"Our company has used the service for 10 years. At first, there were only a few containers a month, but now we send about 600 to 700 containers every month. The variety of products has also improved from less than 10 to nearly 300," said Kong Weidong, general manager of the Zhengzhou office of a freight transport agency in Shanghai.

"When we first started our business in Zhengzhou, there were two to three employees. Now our team has grown to about 100," he said.

"Although the foreign trade business this year is very complicated, we are optimistic about the China-Europe freight train services. We want to use the geographic advantage of Zhengzhou to extend more routes in Russia, Central Asia and even ASEAN countries," he said.

He believed the freight train service is a safe, reliable, efficient and economical choice for customers.

It has saved time and is less affected by weather, unlike sea transportation, he said.

The company has about 800 clients, of which about 30 percent are foreign companies.

"At first, customers, especially foreign clients, did not know or were unwilling to learn about the service. We have told our customers it is a very good choice," he said.

"One of the German companies was not interested in the service in 2015 when I first introduced it to them. I made a thorough introduction to them but they were still not interested. But the customer came back and found us about three or four years later. They wanted to try the service after a few years' observation," he said, adding that the company has since become one of their loyal clients.

Kong also noted that the service has improved over the years. Better services such as a tracking system and cold-chain carriages are offered, he added.

The freight train service has not only benefited Henan.

In 2011, a new era in rail freight was ushered in when a train left Chongqing and traveled through Central Asia to Europe, establishing a viable alternative to sea and air shipping.

Over the past decade, 77,000 China-Europe freight train trips have been made, carrying 7.31 million containers with a total estimated goods value exceeding $340 billion.

The China-Europe train services network has connected 217 cities in 25 European countries.

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