In Belgium, various parties are working to establish the transport of temperature-controlled products by rail to the west of China, a venture that may also be of interest for fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables. A variety of obstacles have been overcome in recent times, but there are still some challenges to face. "It is expected that the first shipment will take place in the winter of 2014," says Veerle van der Sypt of Fresh Trade Belgium.

In April 2014 a ‘test drive’ was undertaken to Kazakhstan, where a new type of container was tested: a 45’ diesel-electric unit with a tank capacity of 800 litres, allowing – in principle – for the journey to China to be bridged without refuelling. Through a built-in track and trace unit, the shipment can be followed online. The status of the goods and cooling unit consumption can also be monitored directly. The test drive incorporated a worst case scenario, testing all of the above elements and the follow-up procedures.

Addition to existing transportation

The Transpharma Express, as the project is called (after its initial promoters), aims to realize conditioned transport by rail along the ancient Silk Road that connects the West (Antwerp) to the East (Chongqing). The railway line itself has been in use for several years, at least in the East-West direction, for the transport of IT products. HP, among others, uses the rail to transport electronics from Chinese factories to the European market. The plan is to reload the train on its way back to China, with cargo that might include fruit and vegetables and other fresh produce.

Competitive rates

"The project’s success will largely depend on a certain balance between volumes going from east to west and those going from west to east," explains Veerle, highlighting one of the challenges. "Where east to west is concerned, there are already ample guarantees of IT companies like HP to continue to use the track. VIL, the Flanders Institute for Logistics, has made tentative calculations on the basis of their demonstrated interest from various sectors such as food processing, pharmaceutical and chemical industries. And so far, there seems to be real potential for running a train three times a week."

Also, the calculated rates for rail transportation seem competitive with those for road transport. Shipping is still cheaper, but the inland regions reached by train are beyond the reach of seagoing vessels, which increases the total transport time.

Political support

Because the Transpharma Express will cross a multitude of countries on its voyage to China, it’s also quite a task to gain political support, as well as figuring out different customs regulations. "There is sustained political support from the countries concerned. A joint venture between the railway companies of Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan and China, along with the Chongqing Logistics Council, should guarantee solid coordination. Railway officials in these countries will invest in a pool of conditioned containers of 45’ and platforms of 90’."

Final challenges
The entire rail journey from Antwerp to Chongqing is expected to take 20 to 22 days. This calculation is made based on a door-to-door concept, which means that the shipment, from the supplier to the end customer, is to be underway for no longer than 22 days. The transport time to Astana, Kazakhstan, is expected to be 12 days, also on a door-to-door basis.

More information:
resh Trade Belgium
Veerle van der Sypt