Rotterdam to receive first direct train from China in years

The last time a direct container train from China arrived in the port of Rotterdam was in 2015. Since then, cargo from China reached the Dutch port via hubs, such as Duisburg, Cologne or Tilburg. Now that a direct train is underway, Rotterdam could become a hub on the New Silk Road.

With Rotterdam most frequented as a stopover for further distribution to the UK or southern Europe, one could imagine the shipment to be just that: on the way to other destinations. But it is actually for a local customer, explains Wanxu Dong, General Manager of BTE, the operator of the train. “At this moment, we have a client with a demand for textiles in Rotterdam.”

Network

At the same time, Dong acknowledges that the connection to Rotterdam is not limited to this consignment. “The port of Rotterdam is known for its well-connected distribution network. From Rotterdam, you can easily reach southern European countries such as France and Italy. I believe that by launching this new product, we could generate a positive response towards the connection.”

It all sounds like music to the ears of Gilbert Bal, who is responsible for the rail product from the port of Rotterdam. “This is something spectacular”, he said during RailFreight Live on Friday. “A direct train means that Rotterdam will be the hub for continuing the cargo. Clients can use our dense short-sea network, as well as our fast hinterland connections. For example, Samskip offers connections to the UK, and Hupac to Italy. And there are many more.”

The route

This new route originates from Xi’an in China. It runs though Kazakhstan and Russia to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Here, the containers are loaded on a vessel to the German port of Mukran, from where they continue by train to the RSC terminal in the port of Rotterdam. The connection up till Mukran already existed, it is the Mukran-Rotterdam rail connection that was added to extend the service to the Netherlands.

“We chose this route mainly for the transit time”, explains Dong. “Last year we did a test shipment from Xi’an to the port of Mukran, it only took eleven days. When you look at the transit time of this year, until now at least, the average transit time from the terminal in Xi’an to the end destination of the cargo via Mukran is around 13 to 14 days. From Xi’an to Rotterdam via Mukran should be 16 days.”

The transit time

The transit times are impressive, considering that a short-sea connection is in between. After all, the fastest connection between Xi’an and Germany so far is via Kaliningrad too, but an all-rail connection. The train runs via Kaliningrad to Neuss and Hamburg, in a total of eleven days from its origin in China.

But it is actually simpler than you think, the BTE chief says. “The train from Xi’an to Kaliningrad is all by rail and none-stop, except for the necessary reloading due to a change of gauge at Alashankou (Chinese-Kazakh border). When the train arrives in Kaliningrad, the vessel is already there waiting for the arrival of the train. The short-sea connection is assigned to pick up containers from the train. When the containers arrive in Mukran, the train is there to be reloaded. I would say the transit costs almost no time, so clients should not worry about the time. The short-sea shuttle service is not a public service, it is a dedicated service designed for our new route.”

Welcome train

“That is incredibly clever”, says Bal enthusiastically. “With that, it is a very attractive offer indeed.” He explains that as a business manager of the logistics department, he is not necessarily involved in the setup of new train connections to Rotterdam. “We are a neutral port, any operator can setup a rail connection.

Exactly why there has not been a direct train from China since 2015, he could not say. “We do talk with operators and other players active on the corridor, to see what is needed and what can be done. We always hear about two things that are important: good short-sea connections and enough cargo on the train. Therefore, to hear that a full train is coming our way is really great.

Positive outlook

Bal is positive about the potential of the connection, which in his opinion, could service export to China too. “We have a fast industrial area and also agriculture sourcing areas in the region. Especially now the ban on overland transport of agricultural products through Russia is lifted, this could potentially lead to more export through Russia. So, hopefully there is more to come.”

Until now nothing, now it is becoming active again. Apparently clients are willing to pay for it. As Dong said, he is willing to take the chance. We will hopefully see more of this in the future.

Watch the interviews

In RailFreight Live of Friday 20 August, both Wanxu Dong and Gilbert Bal are interviewed. You can watch the show below.

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailFreight.com, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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