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China’s rail freight traffic to Europe rose sharply during the coronavirus pandemic, mainly due to the higher freight costs and the enormous quantities of wood that are being transported to China.

The number of freight trains from China to destinations along the Silk Road to Europe increased to 6,354 in the first seven months (+ 41% compared to the previous year). In July, China Railway sent 1,232 freight trains to Europe. That was the largest value ever measured in a single month. 113,000 containers were transported by rail in July (+73% compared to 2019). Approximately 41 containers (40 ft) fit on a train. Over the past five months, the number of freight trains going to Europe has increased every month.

The container costs for a transport from Zhengzhou to Hamburg amounted to US $ 9,500 and from Wuhan to Pardubice (Czech Republic) to US $ 11,000. The freight was en route between 11 and 15 days. Sea freight is significantly cheaper; however, it takes 30 to 40 days to reach the destination ports in Europe. Ocean freight to China currently costs US $ 1,000 per container. In the first half of the year, sea freight prices were up to US $ 1,700 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rail transport to China – (not) an alternative?

The industry currently reckons that around 35 cubic meters of spruce will fit in one container. This is between US $ 29 and 33 per cubic meter for sea freight and between US $ 270 and 315 per cubic meter for the Zhengzhou to Hamburg train route.

Therefore is highly improbable that rail transport for logs to China will become more important. With lumber and processed products, the odds may be better.

The Chinese sawmill industry and the woodworking industry are largely near the coast, as most wood products come to China by ship. More than half of the wood industry companies have good port connections. Very few sawmills have a siding.

The amount that is currently being transported to China is never completely on the train. Rail transport can, if at all, only play a role as an alternative in the event of capacity bottlenecks with regard to the availability of shipping space.

In the first half of the year, Germany alone exported 2 million cubic meters of softwood, 175,000 cubic meters of beech logs and 540,000 cubic meters of sawn timber to China.

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