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Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused major disruptions to international supply chains, not all freight and logistics networks have been affected equally.
As countries around the globe have closed their borders to air freight, due to the restrictions on passenger flights which carry most airborne cargo, shipments via rail have continued unabated, including long haul routes from China to Europe. Additionally, seaborne freight has been first hit by shutdowns in China and now by lockdowns in the US and Europe, causing freight liners with large capacities to cut back services.
Into this situation has come rail freight, which within Europe has bypassed kilometres long lines of trucks stops at internal borders, and has picked up the slack left by ocean-going lines being reduced. In mid-March, DHL announced that while routes via air were uncertain and blank sailings (cancelled ship cargo services), rail freight continued as normal.
“All DHL Global Forwarding Rail services, including FCL and LCL service from China to Europe (Westbound) and Europe to China (Eastbound), continue normal operations,” the company announced on March 10.
More recently, Finnish logistics operator, Nurminen Logistics has announced the schedules of its Helsinki, Finland to Hefei, China service. Senior vice president sales, Mikko Järvinen, said that flexibility is key.
“Everyone has had to improvise with these disturbances in international logistics. One of the tools we have had for our customers has been the fast cargo train service,” he said.
With the demand for essential medical supplies more critical than ever, and with China manufacturing many of these goods, a reliable shipping option has needed to be found, and in this case, that has been rail.
According to Chinese media agency Xinhua, the first quarter of 2020 saw a 15 per cent increase in freight rail trips between China and Europe, and an 18 per cent increase in freight units. From March 21 until the beginning of April, China had sent 333,800 pieces of epidemic control supplies via rail to Italy, Spain and other European nations.
Within Europe, logistics operators were hit hard by border closures within the Schengen zone. Which in one case at the border between Germany and Poland led to a line of trucks stretching for 50 kilometres. In the Czech Republic, the border into Slovakia is clogged with 30 kilometres of trucks. Rail, however, is continuing across borders without any stops with Austrian operator Rail Cargo Group announcing on March 24 that all freight trains are running on schedule without any restrictions.
Furthermore, rail has also proven its flexibility. In one instance, an urgent shipment of pasta from Italy to Germany was hauled by rail at short notice. DB Schenker transported 400,000 packages of pasta, over 200 tonnes, for retailer Aldi.
“The current Coronavirus pandemic emphasises the importance of reliable supply chains. Logistics keeps the world running, as demonstrated by our solution for ALDI to transport pasta from Italy to Germany on short notice,” said Christian Drenthen, board member for land transport at DB Schenker.