Although the global logistics market has been seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic since last year, the freight train service between China and Europe has shown strong resilience, transporting epidemic control materials and daily supplies and injecting vitality into the global economy.
The latest data showed that from January to March, 3,345 freight train trips were conducted between China and Europe, a year-on-year increase of 70 percent. They carried 317,000 containers, up 79 percent year-on-year, according to the China State Railway Group, the national railway operator.
By January, the country had seen more than 1,000 such trips for the ninth consecutive month, the group said.
In 2011, when the service began, only 17 trips were made that year.
According to the group, the freight train service has played a significant role in stabilizing industrial chains, facilitating China-Europe trade and supporting the global battle against the novel coronavirus.
Major railway ports including the Ereenhot land port in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and the Khorgos land port in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region have expanded their capacities, adding more facilities for loading and unloading and opening more cross-border train tracks.
Representatives from transportation organizations and businesses from countries operating the freight train services have held three video conferences since last year to discuss international cooperation, ensuring punctuality of the service and aiming to establish a safe, stable and effective international logistics channel.
According to the group, by February, the trains had delivered 9.97 million epidemic prevention and control items－including protective masks and medical supplies－weighing 80,000 metric tons to Germany, Poland, Belgium and other countries.
Last year, a record of 12,400 freight train trips were made between China and Europe, a year-on-year growth of 50 percent. They carried 1.14 million containers, up 56 percent from 2019.
Launched in 2011, the China-Europe freight train service, considered to be a significant part of the Belt and Road Initiative, has boosted trade between China and participating countries.
Last month, the blocking of the Suez Canal by a stuck ship led to the increase of inquiries about the China-Europe freight train service as an alternative for anxious businessmen.
Outbound service starts in many cities in China such as Yiwu in Zhejiang province and Chengdu in Sichuan province, leaves the country via the land ports in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, passes through Russia and central Asian countries and arrives in western Europe.
The journey usually takes about two weeks, but it is cheaper than air freight and faster than maritime service.
A high-profile guideline of the development of China's transportation system in 15 to 30 years promotes the goal to improve the international railway logistics system, including the strategic corridor of the China-Europe freight train service.
Conductor Zhang Xiaojun was the first to obtain credentials to operate a China-Europe freight train in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, a city that borders Russia.
Since 2013, he has been driving the train from Manzhouli to Zabaykalsk, Russia.
Although more conductors have joined the route, Zhang gets busier every year.
"Many more trains arrive and carry freight on to Russia," he said.
He makes the journey three times every two days now.
The China-Europe freight train service has proved to be more advantageous compared with maritime and air transportation during the pandemic, Ma Bin, associate researcher from the Center for Russia and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote in a policy briefing.
While the maritime and air freight capacities have been restrained by the pandemic, the freight train service has seized the opportunity to expand its market, he said.
Ma added that the government has given the service strong support, facilitating growth by persuading countries along the route to provide preferential policies so that trains can complete customs inspections more quickly.
To maintain the service's sustainable development, he suggested providing a more comprehensive evaluation system to assess its performance.
The existing system mainly assesses performance indicators such as the scale and transportation time.
Ma suggested adding others, such as the diversity of goods and the number of countries and cities the trains arrive in.
Profit should be the priority, and the government's subsidies should be reduced, he added.