Is it possible to transport vaccines for COVID-19 by rail?

Container train in Ukraine, source: Ukrainian Railway

Although Europe is making no move to buy Chinese vaccines, cooperation between China and Europe in the fight against the pandemic is inevitable, so are the large cross-border shipments of vaccines. However, while discussing the progress of vaccine research, the more important challenge has been overlooked: how to transport and distribute the vaccine around the world? This was noted by Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, in an interview at Bloomberg News.

As a perishable commodity, vaccines are usually transported by air. However, in the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines have to scale down their operations due to flight restrictions and a severe decrease of passengers. With most aeroplanes grounded for an extended period, the global air network has been hard hit. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), providing one dose of vaccine to each of the world’s 7.8 billion people would require 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo planes. Moreover, the cost of transporting vaccines would skyrocket due to the strict demands of the cold chain and the volatility of the international freight market. Inevitably, there comes a global problem of who will pay for the high cost of vaccines.

Could it be done?

With air freight restrictions, is it possible for railways, especially the China-Europe Express, to support the efficient operation of the vaccine supply chain, just as they do with other medical supplies?

Vaccine transport requires temperature-controlled equipment. Given the instability of RNA, if a temperature limit is exceeded, the vaccine will degrade. Vaccines developed by different institutions have different temperature upper limits for storage and transport. Strong real-time monitoring capabilities are also required to ensure the integrity of the vaccine during transport. Moreover, specially trained staff is also critical, as the loading, unloading and transportation of vaccines are notoriously error-tolerant. Skilled professionals who are sensitive to time and temperature are needed.

Cold chain transport on the China-Europe Express

The China-Europe Express started a cold chain transport business in 2015. Cities near the border in the northeast and northwest are using the cold chain (temperature-controlled transport) to export perishable products, such as fruits and vegetables, to Russia and other countries. Additionally, inland cities use thermo-tanks to transport flowers and seedlings, as well as temperature-critical IT products in the winter. After the gradual lifting of Russian transit restrictions, European food, wine and dairy products have also entered the Chinese market on cold chain, particularly with the China-Europe Express.

However, the development of the cold chain on the New Silk Road is still at an initial stage. On a technical level, China’s railway uses 45-foot diesel-electric integrated reefer containers of international standard. Inside the containers, temperature control ranges from -29 ℃ to +27 ℃. In 2016, China’s railway developed the 40-foot BX1K reefer container, in which the temperature can be as low as -25 ℃. The technology that is mainly applied is controlled atmosphere transportation. It keeps the transported goods, such as vegetables and fruits, at the lower or intermediate levels of the ideal temperatures. Nevertheless, these technologies are not as developed as the advanced electronic storage ones in Europe.

At the operational level, the cold-chain logistics of the China-Europe Express is not sufficient yet. A complete chain consists of temperature control and insulation, cold-chain warehousing, cold chain transportation, cold chain loading and unloading, cold chain information control, and, finally, cold chain quarantine. At present, the services provided by the China-Europe Express trains are mainly limited to cold chain transportation and have not yet involved other fields.

Possibility of transporting vaccines on trains

Although rail transport showed remarkable resilience during the epidemic and largely maintained the functioning of the global supply chain, these limitations still put some obstacles on the cross-border transport of vaccines. Firstly, the temperature control of the vaccines, during storage and transportation, cannot be guaranteed. Different neocon vaccines can withstand diverse upper-temperature limits. In general, there is a belief that applying a storage environment of -80 degrees to different vaccines can be feasible. In Zhengzhou, for example, where the cold chain logistics is well developed, the frozen warehouse can only reach the storage temperature required for common fruits and vegetables.

Subsequently, storing vaccines means that special warehouses have to be constructed on a large scale. Furthermore, in transit, the temperature threshold of the container obviously cannot meet the survival needs of all the vaccines. Nowadays, air freight mainly uses a special portable vaccine cooler. Once thawed, the vaccines can only remain active in the cooler for 5 to 14 days, which is a considerable challenge for the transit time of rail freight.

Maintenance and staff

Secondly, frequently used refrigerators on the China-Europe Express facilitate the braking for the chiller with diesel fuel and winter antifreeze diesel fuel. The service points for chiller maintenance and refuelling along the China-Europe route are located in large transit change stations, such as Malaszewicz, Alashankou, and Khorgos. If there is a need for maintenance and refuelling during transit, there would be rarely available help at hand.

Finally, the experience of China-Europe Express trains on the transport of vaccines is not rich enough. Transportation of biopharmaceutical products between China and Europe is still on the testing stage, and it is difficult for ordinary freight workers to acquire the professional knowledge of vaccine transport and skillfully apply it to practice in such a short period. It also needs time to ensure that nothing goes wrong with all the involved parties during transit. Such a hastily formed vaccine supply chain for emergency purposes may not be able to handle the task.

European Silk Road Summit 2020

Do you want to hear more about the cold chain or temperature-controlled transport on the New Silk Road? It is one of the topics on the program of the European Silk Road Summit 2020. On 10 and 11 November the online edition of this event takes place. The impact of the pandemic, the current volumes and the forecasts for the year to come are other topics on the programme. Have a look here or register here.

This article is a translation of the original on, authored by Huilin Shi.

Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is editor of, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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