Despite growing demand from shippers in Europe and China to increase reefer capacity on the Eurasian rail freight routes, there are still technical and cost issues slowing the deployment of temperature-controlled containers.
The main issue is the cost of installing new technology and engineering components to trains on the long-haul route.
Diesel-electric reefers, commonly used on the China-Europe routes, cost some US$68,000 per unit as opposed to electric-powered reefers that cost approximately US$17,000. However, the rolling stock on the long-haul routes does not have the technology to power electric reefers commonly used by major ocean carriers.
As emission controls get tougher in Europe and China, there is a growing movement to phase out the diesel-powered generators used for reefers on the routes.
In Switzerland, specially equipped locomotives power reefers directly using a continuous train busbar that provides each reefer unit with an uninterrupted power supply, according to Juergen Trojak, a rail engineering expert.
For the long-haul from Asia to Europe, however, existing rolling stock is not equipped with power converters to connect the locomotive to each wagon. Instead, operators are using diesel to power reefers.
Trojak also said that deploying remote container monitoring (RCM) systems and controlled atmosphere technology will be game changers in accelerating reefer traffic on Europe-China routes.
Cargo quality and shelf life of products are essential for the shipment of perishable goods. In addition, carefully managed CO2 and oxygen levels are critical to delaying the ripening process of fruit and other perishables.
Without a sustainable, reliable and robust power supply, these technologies cannot be deployed on the route, where external temperatures range from plus 40 degrees Centigrade to minus 40 degrees Centigrade.
Juergen Trojak is of the opinion that growth in overall rail freight volumes and better-balanced trade between East and West will stimulate investment in innovative technology that will also benefit reefer shipments.
In 2018, 31 per cent of all Porsches produced were delivered to China, now the number one export market for the sports car brand. Annually, some 80,000 Porsche cars are transported on the 18,500-kilometre journey by sea from Germany to Guangzhou, Shanghai or Tianjin. The time taken to transport cars from factory to dealers in China takes more than 50 days. By rail, the journey can be reduced to between 14-18 days.
According to RailFreight.com, 11 per cent of Porsche high-end car shipments to China currently move by rail.
The Porsche shipment route runs 11,000 kilometres from Germany via Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan to Chongqing in south-west China. From there, the cars are delivered to regional dealers.