The Spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has incurred global traffic restrictions, leaving tonnes of goods confined to their origins and unable to reach the destinations.

However, the China-Europe cargo trains have remained a reliable transportation channel across the continents, displaying its strategic value of ensuring the international supply chain amid the epidemic.

Initiated in 2011, the China-Europe Rail Service is considered a significant part of the Belt & Road Initiative to boost trade between China and countries along the routes. A new report by the China Container Industry Association showed that China-Europe trains made 1,132 trips from 63 Chinese cities in the first two months of 2020, up 6 percent year on year.

Train service from central and western China in particular, registered strong growth, with departures from the city of Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, rose 88 percent year on year to 267, while trains leaving from Hunan Province surged by 175 percent in the first two months.

But the sudden hit of the novel coronavirus outbreak did cast a shadow on trains running on the routes.

In the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu, China’s small commodity hub, regular Europe-bound rail service after the Spring Festival, the biggest holiday season in China, resumed more than two weeks later than usual.

From the start of the year to March 24, the Yiwu railway station saw departures of 67 China-Europe freight trains carrying 5,474 TEUs (20-foot containers), up 40.8 percent year on year.

However, between Feb. 10 and March 20, only 10 freight trains left Yiwu for Europe. Together they carried 828 TEUs of goods, down 43.4 percent from a year ago. Meanwhile, no cargoes were shipped back.

“The biggest change is that the entire company was left with not much to do after the Spring Festival. In previous years, the peak period of shipment was 10 days after the opening of the market after the Lunar New Year, but it took one month to resume normal operation this year,” said Feng Xubin, Chairman of the operating company of the China-Europe Cargo Service in Yiwu.

Now as the coronavirus pandemic continued to infect more population globally, many countries have further tightened control of air and sea transportation.

“The soaring price of air freight has led to further decline in goods shipped by air,” said Guo Liming, General Manager of a Henan based supply chain management company.

The China-Europe freight service has therefore become an important channel to transport medical supplies out of China, a major manufacturer of such products.

A freight train carrying donated face masks and other anti-coronavirus supplies departed Yiwu on March 21 for Madrid, Spain.

The donation included 110,000 surgical masks and 766 protective suits. It was the first China-Europe freight train to carry anti-epidemic supplies to Europe, which will arrive in Madrid in about two weeks.

There will be no transportation charges for any institutions, groups or individuals that donate anti-epidemic supplies to Spain. The train from Yiwu to Madrid will increase frequency from one trip a week to two trips per week, said Feng.

The China-Europe train service even resumed in Wuhan, the former epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, on March 28, soon after the city loosened traffic control following a two-month lockdown.

Carrying medical supplies and other goods with a total value of 22 million yuan (3.1 million U.S. dollars), the train will arrive in the German city of Duisburg in about 15 days and the goods will be transported to countries including France, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.

“The goods and the train have been thoroughly disinfected and we’re closely monitoring the physical condition of the driver,” said Gao Ruorui with Wuhan Asia-Europe Logistics.

“We believe that the stable services we provided during the epidemic will deepen people’s understanding of the China-Europe rail service,” said Kang Yan, Vice General Manager of Zhengzhou International Hub Development and Construction Co., Ltd., operator of the China-Europe trains in Zhengzhou. “Railway is the most reliable transportation channel during the epidemic.”

“We hope that more countries can fully recognise the role of the China-Europe freight trains and make greater use of them, especially when transportation is strictly restricted at harbours and airports,” said Guo.