China Railways stops China-Europe trains for the first time

Railway traffic from China to Europe via the border crossings of both Alashankou and Erenhot has been halted. China Railways has released an official mandate to stop the loading of outgoing trains via these border crossings, starting on Monday 25 October. The ban will be in place for until 1 November for Alashankou and until 28 October for Erenhot.
It is the first time that China Railways has implemented such a decision. The unforeseen circumstances with the backlog of trains gathered in the borders waiting to cross to Kazakhstan or Mongolia seems to have led to this development. Nevertheless, after China’s Golden Week holiday, the hot export situation had cooled down for the time being, so why is the congestion still going on and even getting worse?

China-Kazakhstan traffic issues

Some time ago, two major border points in China’s Xinjiang province (Khorgos and Alashankou) were confirmed with a succession of Covid-19 cases, making epidemic prevention operations at the ports more demanding. Kazakhstan’s local TV station Хабар 24 Live said that since August, the capacity of the China-Kazakhstan border crossing had been reduced significantly due to the need to prevent the epidemic. At Alashankou, trains transiting from China to Kazakhstan have dropped from 16 to 5-6 per day.

Under the strict restrictions, the flow of goods across the border has come to a standstill, with roughly 150 goods trains and 7,000 wagons currently waiting to cross the border and another hundred trains and 5,000 wagons delayed en route. It is not only transit cargo from China that is affected. Japanese and Korean shippers are also facing problems losing out on the extra transit time.

More congestion on the way to Europe

Additional to the difficulties at border-crossings, there are many obstacles along the route of the China-European trains. In the case of Małaszewicze, the prime Central European gateway, for example, the number of trains was severely restricted between 4 and 20 August when half of the border crossing’s facilities were closed for railway maintenance work. The congestion caused by the two-week shutdown took a long time to absorb, and, coupled with construction work at other yards in the area, it remains severe. More than 500 containers are currently waiting in the queue, and delays average around 10 days, sometimes up to 16 days, according to The LoadStar.

What about alternative routes? During the epidemic, the sea-rail routes via Kaliningrad and Russian Far Eastern ports were widely noted for their competitive timeliness. Yet, both failed to keep operating smoothly amidst the surge of cargo traffic. There are also long queues of cargo waiting to be transferred to ships in the port of Kaliningrad due to congestion in European ports. According to RBC Capital Markets, the German port of Hamburg, which receives most of Kaliningrad’s transhipment cargo, has an average waiting time of 2.5 days, ranking it 14th in the world in terms of port delays, with a 32 per cent punctuality rate for incoming vessels in September. Not coincidentally, Rosatom recently reported that Far Eastern ports face capacity constraints due to a backlog of containers.

The picture shows the transport infrastructure in the Kaliningrad region. Image from: ERAI

The one-week pause of loading trains at border-crossings seems to be the last resort of China Railways, perhaps to meet the immediate needs of the current situation. But with the European Christmas season, the Winter Olympics and the Shanghai Expo to follow, will the China-Europe express be able to keep up the pressure by stopping loading?

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