First China-Europe mail-only freight train delivers


In a world first, mail-only freight trains from China are helping clear the huge backlog of mail destined for Europe – caused by the huge cuts in passenger airline belly cargo capacity – and deliver medical supplies.

The first of a planned series of trains, the China Post CR Express block train, was unloaded in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 14 April carrying mail and two containers of medical supplies.

Each train carries around 300 tonnes of mail and is the result of cooperation between China Post, Lithuania Post, Polish Post and railway operators, with transport taking between 12-14 days. Around 2,000 tonnes of mail is slated for rail transport from China in the next 2-3 months.

Many of the train journeys are expected to end in Lithuania, although other trains will go to Poland. Trucks then take the mail to their final destination in more than 30 countries across Europe.

The use of the rail network to deliver mail is a success for the Universal Postal Union’s Supply Chain Team, which has championed the rail network for the delivery of mail between Europe and Asia. At present, the team is working with representatives from Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, among others.

UPU’s director of postal operations Abdelilah Bousseta said: “Sometimes supreme challenges can lead to good ideas and produce simplified solutions. At present, given the current situation, the train network is one of the very best solutions for moving the huge volumes of mail.”

Noor Adan, the UPU’s global supply chain coordinator, said: “The Universal Postal Union is proud to work with postal operators and railway operators to ensure that the international postal service continues during this crisis.” 

The Universal Postal Union is a UN specialist agency with its headquarters in the Swiss capital Berne. Established in 1874, it is one of the world’s oldest international organisations and is the primary forum for cooperation between postal sector players. 

As reported in Lloyd’s Loading List, the widespread cuts in passenger airline belly cargo capacity has led to other cargo owners and freight forwarders seeking alternative transport modes such as sea-air and intermodal rail freight for shipments from China, to avoid production and supply chain delays, as high demand for personal protective equipment and recovery of production in China meets the growing air freight capacity constraints.

International air freight forwarders continue to report tight air freight capacity on many key lanes – notably ex-Asia and also the transatlantic. Global forwarding and logistics giant Kuehne + Nagel (KN) noted that with the majority of carriers closing down or making large cuts in their passenger networks, it was seeing acute shortages of lift on many trade lanes, particularly ex-China. In order to compensate for the belly cargo capacity shortages, freighter capacity had significantly increased, although this increase was not sufficient to offset the strong drop in global belly capacity. 

“Due to the capacity constraints and recovery of production in China, the number of customer requests for sea-air has seen a substantial increase, as customers are looking for alternative ways to avoid production and supply chain delays,” the company confirmed.

Other freight forwarders, including the UK’s Davies Turner and Austria’s Cargo-partner, have reported strong demand for China-Europe rail freight services – which have now resumed following the lifting of most restrictions in China – in response to the current capacity restrictions.