China rail operators not willing to take lithium-ion batteries until safety regulations and guidelines are clarified by Government

The decision by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to ban the bulk carriage of lithium-ion batteries in the belly space of passenger aircraft from 01 April this year, has resulted in shippers and 3PLs looking to alternatives including freighter aircraft and rail.

The nascent rail freight sector along the Silk Route connects China to Europe via Central Asia would seem to provide a viable alternative to ship batteries to market. But Chinese rail freight operators are unsure if the current safety rules allow them the carry the cargo.

“There have been many enquiries from lithium-ion battery manufacturers to find out if they can ship their product via rail from China to Europe but most of the operators are unsure if the current safety regulations allow them to do so,” said a senior executive from a China- based Non-Train Operating Common Carrier.

“Once the Ministry of Railways clarifies the situation then the operators may be able to accept the cargo, but for now they won’t accept lithium-ion batteries as they are unsure if they have the right firefighting equipment and rolling stock that complies with regulations,” he added.

The United Nations aviation agency’s ban is a result of concerns by pilots and aircraft manufacturers that lithium-ion batteries, when carried in large quantities, may pose a fire risk. A 2015 working paper funded by the aircraft manufacturers found current firefighting systems on airliners could not “suppress or extinguish a fire involving significant quantities of lithium-ion batteries”.

There have also been calls from the Air Forwarders’ Association to have a total review of safety certification standards and government enforcement of battery packaging to comply with international standards.

“There will be fewer transportation choices for commercial industries that rely on battery power sources which will ultimately result in higher costs. The ICAO ban will hopefully lead to better packaging and transportation procedures, but an embargo on the cells from passenger flights is not a sustainable long-term solution,” said Brandon Fried, Executive Director of the Air Forwarders’ Association.

A spokesperson for The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it respects the announcement by the ICAO Governing Council to ban lithium-ion batteries from cargo in passenger planes, “We will be working hard with our member airlines and the cargo supply chain to ensure this directive is implemented without exception by 1st April.”

The Association notes, however, that the vast majority of incidents involving lithium-ion batteries have been from shipments where the batteries were not in compliance with the existing regulations. There have also been reports of seizures by customs and consumer protection authorities where the batteries have been identified as being of counterfeit manufacture. Banning their transportation by air does not tackle this problem.

It is vital, therefore, that governments redouble their efforts to crack down on counterfeit battery producers and shippers that fail to comply with the regulations. Governments also need to enhance their oversight to prevent counterfeit producers illegally declaring battery shipments as normal cargo.

“Air cargo is the swiftest and safest form of freight transport, essential for today’s globalised world. Consumers and businesses have benefited from the speed and flexibility of air cargo to deliver lithium-ion batteries to markets when they are needed the most. The air cargo industry, the battery manufacturers, and air safety experts will therefore continue their efforts to explore ways to guarantee the safe transport of properly manufactured lithium-ion batteries by air. We hope this ban will be kept under periodic review, taking into account future improvements in containing, packaging, fire suppression, and manufacturing oversight.”

Demand for freighters will increase but will add to costs and may also result in battery manufacturers looking to use ocean freight rather than air in the longer term.

Corey Mahjoubian, Director – Global Airfreight for Toll Global Forwarding, said, “We are already working with our customers to find alternative transportation services depending on their specific requirements. We are used to changes in the supply chain because of new regulations, natural disasters and port congestion; and part of our job is to be flexible and responsive in order to meet our customers’ needs.”

Information

The ban on lithium-ion batteries does not apply to those packed with, or contained in, equipment under regulations UN3481 PI 966 and 967 respectively.

Lithium-ion batteries have a high charge density (long life) and high cost per unit. Depending on the design and chemical compounds used, they can produce voltages from 1.5 V (comparable to a zinc–carbon or alkaline battery) to about 3.7 V. Their main use is for portable electronics devices such as mobile phones and laptops, and can be recharged.