4 months of war and sanctions – an assessment of the alternatives

Train from Wuhan to Serbia

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, rail operators have looked for alternative routes between Europe and China. Nearly four months ahead, these routes have been established. We ask one of the key players, Metrans, how the possibilities routes compare.

There is little room for discussion when it comes to the transit times. The alternative routes are longer, much longer. This becomes clear when Martin Koubek, director Silk Road puts together the transit times of the traditional and newly established corridors:

  • the transit time from China to Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia was around 20 days in 2021
  • the transit time from China to Europe via Mongolia was approximately 25 days in 2021
  • the transit time from China to Europe via Turkey is currently 30 days
  • the transit time from China to Europe via the Black Sea is currently 40 days

Although the transit time via the Black Sea is double the transit time via the northern route, it is a commonly used alternative for those who do not wish to transit through Russia. And so is Turkey, because simply put, all routes that are available need to be used to compensate for the huge capacity the northern route offers. Having said that, there are pro’s and con’s of each alternative.

Via Romania

“As per our knowledge, there are currently some 8 trains on the way to the port of Constanta”, says Koubek. The Romanian port has popped up as the largest and popular transhipment hub on the Black Sea. After crossing the Caspian sea, cargo is reloaded on the train from Baku to Tbilisi, where it is reloaded again for the crossing of the Black Sea. From Constanta, trains carry the load further to European destinations.

“The first train departed from China on 13 April and arrived in Mannheim on 18 May. If this is a workable long-term solution, it will be established as a weekly service. We expect a regular transit time of around 40-45 days”, said Koubek.

Metrans route via Romania

He mentions ‘workable’, because there are some hurdles on the way. “Trains on the Romanian network run very slowly, partly due to the fact that they need to cross the Carpathian Mountain. But also because the port of Constanta is currently very crowded. A lot of cargo from Ukraine is also going this way. Additional charges for storage in Constanta may kill this routing if there is no short-term solution.”

More vessels on the Black Sea would also help, Koubek indicates. “There are discussions with Trieste PLT port, which offers capacity to accept the vessels and help re-route the cargo in suitable time. If vessels need to wait in front of the port, it is better to find an alternative solution without waiting time.”

Via Turkey

Metrans runs another service via Turkey to Bulgaria. From here, trains run through Serbia and Hungary to Slovakia, where the company operates several terminals. This route is faster, considering that there is only one sea to cross – the Caspian Sea. But also here, there are some challenges.

There is a limited number of trains that can cross this route due to construction work in Serbia. Also, there are a lot of restrictions on the way, including the Marmaray Tunnel. Some trains need to be reloaded in the Istanbul area.”
In comparison with the northern route, this corridor still takes relatively long due to the Caspian Sea crossing and many reloadings on the way, and the costs and logistics of the route is much more complicated, he explains.

“Yet, it is definitely easier to coordinate than the Romanian route. Time will tell. The first train from Xian departed with TE Bahnoperator, we are awaiting its arrival in Turkey. If the route is indeed faster, then it is definitely easier to coordinate as there aren’t two seas involved.”

Metrans route via Bulgaria

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Author: Majorie van Leijen

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

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