Cargo carriage provides grace for transport sector amid COVID-19

Sunday, 2020-04-19 13:05:46
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Airlines are turning to pure cargo flights during the complex developments of COVID-19. (Photo: NDO/Tuan Phong)
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NDO – To offset the negative impact of COVID-19, transport businesses have turned to domestic and international cargo transport, thereby providing assistance to import and export activities, as well as aiding the Government in the fight against the epidemic.

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New export path

From the beginning of March 2020, the Vietnam Airlines Corporation started to deploy pure cargo flights. Meanwhile, the railway industry has also transported hundreds of refrigerated dragon fruit containers to China. These efforts not only offer a way to "salvage" their business but also help to ensure the continuance of the nation’s trading activities amid the complicated epidemic prevalence.

From mid-February, the railway industry has officially operated an international refrigerated container route, transporting dragon fruit directly from Dong Dang Station (Vietnam’s Lang Son Province) to Pingxiang Station (Guangxi, China). In just over a month since the first official run, the railway industry had exported about 200 containers of dragon fruit and is currently maintaining regular operations each week. In addition to dragon fruit, the Pingxiang border authorities have recently allowed the importation of jackfruit products from Vietnam - these, along with other items in the near future, will make up the full nine agricultural products allowed for rail importation. This will help stabilise output for Vietnamese farmers when many Vietnamese fruits enter their harvest season.

Previously, transport of refrigerated containers by rail only occurred inland. In October last year, the Vietnam Railways Corporation (VNR) started a pilot scheme on the transport of frozen seafood and fruits from the southern region for export to China. At that time, trains just stopped at Dong Dang Station and goods still had to be transferred by car via the border gates to Pingxiang Station before boarding other trains to Chinese cities or to Central Asia and Europe. However, the widespread COVID-19 epidemic has accelerated export by rail. Accordingly, the goods from Vietnam now go straight to Pingxiang Station for quarantine and import procedures.

The operation of international refrigerated container trains opens up great opportunities for the export of Vietnam's agricultural commodities by rail, while contributing to clearing farm produce congestion at border gates. For dragon fruit only, which is in its harvest season, it is expected that the volume of harvested fruit will reach about 300,000 tonnes by the end of April. On the other hand, due to the small number of people involved in the export process, the export of agricultural products by rail has outstanding advantages in effectively controlling the risk of COVID-19 infection, not to mention much lower time and costs exporting by rail to China or transiting in China to a third country compared with road transport methods.

Nguyen Chinh Nam, Head of the VNR Planning Department, said that the refrigerated container train carrying fresh agricultural products from Southern Vietnam to Dong Anh or Yen Vien Stations (in Hanoi) takes about 64 hours, then it takes another six hours to reach Dong Dang Station. Including the waiting time for technical tasks and procedures along the way, it only takes about five days in total until clearance at the border gates. If traveling by road, the transport would need up to 20 trucks. Despite the transport time by road from the South to the Dong Dang Border Gate only taking just over two days, more waiting time for customs clearance is then a factor, leading to additional costs. Meanwhile, a train can carry up to 20 refrigerated containers and the cost of rail freight is about 20% lower than that of road freight.

Along with diverting to an increased operation of freight trains on railway lines, VNR said that it will organise a cargo express train service between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and receive online orders for door-to-door deliveries. From April 1, VNR has offered reduced freight rates to attract customers. From the beginning of this month, following the instruction of the Prime Minister on the implementation of social distancing measures to prevent and control COVID-19, the entire railway network stopped all local passenger trains and only runs two north - south trains daily, coded SE3/SE4. The railway industry has decided to turn more to a domestic freight train model with good service and reasonable costs.

Deputy General Director of Hanoi Railway Transport JSC (HARACO), Phung Thi Ly Ha, said that to serve the transportation of essential goods, from the beginning of April, the company officially ran a couple of freight trains coded HL1/HL2 on a 34-hour journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa. The twin freight trains HL1/HL2 follow the same journey as passenger trains SE5/SE6 and park at local stations to unload goods. The journey of the freight trains follows the passenger route, helping cut their travelling time and facilitate the handling, delivery and management of goods following strict processes, thus allowing the cargo to be delivered in the most effective way.

HARACO’s trains specialising in express cargo delivery earn about VND700 million each day. It takes customers who want to have their goods shipped just a few minutes to make an online order. With this service, railway staff come to the customers’ address to receive the goods, then transport them to the departing stations, before the goods are delivered to the recipient addresses only a few hours after arriving to the destination stations by train. Customers can also take the goods to the departing stations by themselves or go to the arrival stations to collect them.

A train transports containers on its north-south route. (Photo: NDO/Minh Trang)

Ensuring trading activities

Not only the railway, the long-lasting COVID-19 epidemic has also forced the aviation industry into an exhaustive struggle. While 98% of aircraft are "paralysed" and almost all flight operations are stagnant, domestic airlines still have to pay aircraft rental rates ranging from US$0.4-1 million per month. It is estimated that the aviation industry will suffer losses of VND65 trillion (US$2.7 billion), not as low as VND30 trillion forecasted by the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam. In the context of minimising passenger flights, Vietnamese airlines are turning to operating domestic and international cargo flights as a way to salvage some of their regular business.

A representative from the national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines (VNA) revealed that from March 12 to 31, the airline deployed 45 cargo flights from the two major Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Japan, the Republic of Korea, China, Hong Kong (China), Singapore, Malaysia and Bangkok (Thailand). The cargo flights were operated on Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A350 aircrafts with an output of 20-25 tonnes each way, equivalent to a utilisation rate of 95-100%. They were the first pure cargo flights by VNA without passengers and cabin crew onboard. The flight crew was fully equipped with the necessary protective gear and the entire cargo hold was also disinfected immediately after every flight.

In addition to normal freight, VNA cargo flights also transport special goods for the COVID-19 fight, including medical masks, anti-epidemic uniforms, medical equipment and supplies. Recently, VNA supported the free shipping of more than three tonnes of goods from Cho Ray Hospital including special medical protective suits and medical masks from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, as well as transporting 10 ventilators donated by the Temasek Foundation from Singapore to Vietnam.

VNA General Director Duong Tri Thanh said that in April, the airline will continue its plan to focus on strengthening goods transport to ensure domestic and international trade. The airline plans to operate about 150 cargo flights between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as from Nha Trang and Can Tho to Hanoi. On international routes, VNA will operate more than 130 cargo flights to Northeast Asia (Japan, the Republic of Korea, China), Southeast Asia (Thailand, Singapore), Europe (the UK, France, Germany, Russia) and Australia. The airline is considering promoting cargo transportation until the end 2020 to strengthen national socio-economic development, while maintaining its business activities amid the difficulties caused by COVID- 19.

It can be said that the efforts from rail and aviation operators not only help themselves but also contribute to ensuring trade and maintaining production and business activities, especially imports and exports, which are facing a range of difficulties due to the global prevalence of the coronavirus crisis.