TCO Goes for Rail – Taking Containers from Hamburg to China

Rail is continually picking up speed in container transport to and from China; this trend has been apparent for some years. The players involved are including rail transport via the Silk Road in their planning more frequently. TCO Transcargo, the Hamburg, Germany-based service provider for cargo handling, warehousing, distribution and container logistics, entered the field over twelve months ago. Based in the Hanseatic City, the business has developed remarkably, but the company says the opportunities have by no means been exhausted and further potential is still there.

For China, the new Silk Road is one of its largest development programmes for years. With the slogan ‘One Belt, One Road,’ the Beijing government is promoting the project and backing words with deeds: billions are being invested in infrastructure and building up train services. Just between Hamburg and the Middle Kingdom, 177 weekly container block train links are available.

“We primarily handle containers for export to China. That started with three or four 40 ft containers per week,” says Thomas Wolnewitsch, TCO’s managing director. The firm is handling 25 containers per week, and these rail containers to China constitute between 10% and 15% of TCO’s business.

The main activities of the port operation in the heart of the Port of Hamburg are: cargo handling, container stuffing and secure packing of freight for China. TCO has had to adapt and learn since some of the requirements are quite different from those for seaborne containers. “With containers going by rail, sudden acceleration can occur, and forces work horizontally. Freight is also exposed to constant shaking and vibration. This calls for special cargo lashing,” says Wolnewitsch. “At destination, the Zhengzhou rail terminal, stringent regulations apply on how containers are loaded. We receive clear instructions on how containers must be balanced in terms of weight so that they can be trans-shipped in China.”

TCO also responsible for delivering containers at Eurokombi’s multimodal terminals in Hamburg-Waltershof or DUSS in Hamburg-Billwerder. From there, they continue to Malaszewicze on the Poland-Belarus border, where they are transferred from standard to broad-gauge track. They continue via Belarus, Russia and Kazachstan as far as Zhengzhou in the Chinese province of Henan. TCO’s partner and customer is the Chinese rail operator ZIH (Zhengzhou International Hub Development).

At least 70% of rail containers for China handled by TCO contain cars. The remaining 30% of the freight consists of machinery, steel coils and boxed/crated export cargo. Currently ZIH trains are leaving Hamburg for China almost daily. The operator plans to further boost frequency in response to rising demand. Wolnewitsch sees the time-saving as one advantage of containers by rail. By water, door-to-door transport currently takes six weeks, by rail it is almost three weeks – or 50% – shorter. The aim is for purely rail transport to cover the roughly 11,000-kilometre route within between seven and nine days.

“For time taken, then, rail is very interesting in comparison with sea transport. And on price, it is highly attractive compared to air freight,” says Wolnewitsch, adding that he is convinced that the new transport system will not significantly influence transport volume in the sea freight field. For that, its capacities are simply too small. “However, air freight could certainly feel the effects,” he says. Wolnewitsch is also certain that even if the subsidies from the Chinese side are withdrawn in three years, no collapse will hit these trains for China. “This system offers too many advantages for that to happen.”

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