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A train in tracks with a factory in the background

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The COVID-19 pandemic is having a deep impact on transport connectivity in the region as documented in the recent ESCAP Policy Brief on Policy Reponses to Covid-19: Transport Connectivity in Asia and the Pacific. To prevent spread of the virus, within weeks, countries closed their borders to passenger transport and placed varying restrictions on freight transportation disrupting the supply chains. 

Governments of the region need to respond to this pandemic appropriately by not only minimizing the short-term disruptions to transport linkages, but also viewing the crisis as an opportunity to revisit and reset the international freight transport operations towards a more sustainable path.

One major trend that has emerged in international freight transport in these challenging times is the increase in the number of freight trains between China and Europe. According to the Ministry of Commerce of China, freight trains between China and Europe increased by 15 per cent to 1,941 and number of containers transported by 18 per cent to 174,000 in the first quarter of 2020.  

While all other modes of international freight transport have been adversely affected by the pandemic- the increase in freight carried by railways is not surprising, given its distinct features, that are working to its advantage in the current situation. 

International railway transport uses less manpower over long distance and accordingly there are fewer quarantine checks, unlike, for example, in road transport where congestions at border crossings cause more frequent human interactions.  Each freight train can carry between 40 to 70 times equivalent of lorry loads of goods in a much more safe and secure environment giving rail a distinct advantage. 

Traffic at a typical railway border crossing can also be managed much more effectively as compared to a road border crossing, thus the former has much less potential of spreading the virus due to transport process. 

Also, for landlocked developing countries, the disruptions caused by the pandemic would be felt more acutely as they already suffer from high transport cost. International railway transport would be more effective for these countries in the current situation to minimize current disruptions and subsequent bounce back.

To meet the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, international freight trains are being used to transport medical supplies and related equipment to many European countries. The railways of the region are also taking other measures to mitigate the impact caused by the pandemic as indicated on the websites of the mentioned railways. 

For example, Russian Railways has set up an Emergency Response Center to support shippers and enhance coordination of all links in the transport chain to control spread of virus. Turkish Railways is undertaking freight transport with Iran without human contact and all freight trains are disinfected both before and after the trip. Uzbekistan Railways has developed a software for processing and providing preliminary electronic information to customs authorities for goods transported by rail.

ESCAP has engaged its member railways for many years to strengthen international railway transport. Its effort in this direction led to entry into force in 2009, an intergovernmental agreement on Trans-Asian Railway Network, that serves as a coordinated platform for development of railways in the region. 

To facilitate railway transport along the network, in 2015, resolution 71/7 Regional Cooperation Framework on Facilitation of International Railway Transport was adopted  by the member countries that identified key areas for cooperation among railways of the region to facilitate international railway transport. 

More recently, at the Sixth Meeting of the Working Group on the Trans-Asian Railway Network, the importance of reducing the border crossing delays along the long-distance railway corridors was emphasized by taking action on four key issues. 

These include (a) electronic information exchange between railways and among railways and control agencies; (b) harmonizing customs formalities for transit by rail; (c) dealing efficiently with break-of-gauge; and (d) developing comprehensive indicators and methodology to measure the performance of railway border crossing. 

ESCAP is also supporting initiatives to commercialize railway corridors involving landlocked developing countries by developing corridor management mechanism(s) to increase coordination among the railways and other stakeholders along the corridor for efficient operations. 

Concrete action on these initiatives, over medium to long-run, would greatly enhance the efficiency of international freight trains and further reduce transport time as well cost and boost sustainability of international freight transport operations, helping the region “build back better” and shift to a new, more sustainable, “normal” in the post-COVID-19 world. 

History is replete with challenges faced by the mankind and its resilience to come better out of them. The wide scale disruptions cause by the COVID-19 pandemic would undoubtedly make the path towards realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development more challenging. 

The existing situation, therefore, should be leveraged by taking concrete policy measures to enhance reliability of international freight trains making them competitive and self-sustaining. This would augment sustainability of the freight transport networks and thereby support countries in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Sandeep Raj Jain
Economic Affairs Officer
Transport +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]