What’s Faster than Sea Freight but it’s not Air?
7 March 2022

What’s Faster than Sea Freight but it’s not Air?


Overland rail routes from China to Europe are beating out sea freight in speed, container availability, and value.


“Most companies are accustomed to using sea or air freight,” says Luc Audiens, freight specialist from Ziegler Belgium. “But many people aren’t aware of the advantages that rail routes have more recently started to offer.”


Let’s explore the ways that rail freight is helping European companies diversify their supply chains and receive shipments faster from China.

How Long to Ship a Container from China to Europe by Rail?

The short answer is that it now takes about 18-25 days or so.


Prior to the supply chain delays of 2021, rail freight usually took 16 – 20 days to reach Europe from China (terminal to terminal).


However, rail lead times have been affected just like everything else, and it is now currently taking about 18-25 days for a container to reach Europe (add five days more to the UK) due to increased congestion at various processing points along the New Silk Road route.


“Our average transit time to Germany was usually 19 days,” Luc Audiens says. “But due to global supply chain disruptions in 2020 – 2021, the shipment time has increased to 28-30 days, which is still faster than if we were to choose sea freight, which is around 40 days as of late 2021.”

Why is Rail Freight Faster than Sea Freight?

In short – faster loading, better container availability and fewer delays.


Unlike the process of loading a vessel in a port, which leaves containers waiting to be loaded, and then waiting for the ship to leave port for days or even weeks at a time, rail stations work much more efficiently.


Shortly after arriving at the station, containers are loaded onto awaiting trains, and then the train departs without wasting any time. This efficient process cuts down on the total lead time, and gets freight from China to Europe faster.

Transform Your Shipping - Request Your Free Rail Freight Quote

While shortage of containers has been problematic during the shipping crisis of 2021, Ziegler’s partnerships in China provide better availability of containers for our customers. Ziegler has no problem securing space on trains, unlike the scarcity of containers that are going to be used on vessels.


There is also less congestion along the New Silk Road rail routes than for sea ports. So all these factors contribute to faster transit times to stations in Northern Europe.


Who can Benefit from Rail Freight?

Companies located near northern European train stations in Poland, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and France can get the most value from rail freight, as they are in close proximity to destination rail stations.


If time is important due to contracts or the value of the cargo, rail freight is the best method to transport FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) from China to Europe for many of our customers.


There are, of course, options to use sustainable LCL (Less than Container-Load) and FCL (Full Container-Load) transport from China to Europe, so small quantities or larger volumes can be accomodated.


Faster Delivery From China... and other Advantages of Rail Freight

Rail routes are quickly growing in popularity due to various factors as companies look to diversify their supply chain because of current challenges with sea freight delays.

The costs for rail and sea freight are similar

High departure frequency 20-30 trains leaving China per day (2021)

Less loading/unloading time

Shorter transit times

Door-to-door shipment management

Daily location updates

The most environmentally friendly transport solution

Can Rail Freight Help Solve Your Supply Chain Issues?


So even with the delays in 2021 that affected the whole industry, rail freight can be a faster and more cost effective transportation solution than sea freight for FMCG, especially for companies located in northern Europe, the UK and the Baltics.


Chat with a freight specialist at Ziegler Group to see if Rail Freight is right for your business.