Logistics Industry

No smoke on the water

River Freight DPA
River freight is not in demand.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Using boats and barges to transport freight consumes significantly less energy and produces less air pollution than using trucks, but CEOs need to support their companies’ move to water transport.

  • Facts


    • Nationwide, freight shipment by truck is 3 percent above the pre-crisis year of 2007, while the volume conveyed by inland water vessels has declined by 8.5 percent.
    • Germany’s lack of good waterway transportation is a boon for trucking firms and even foreign ports over the Dutch border in Rotterdam and Antwerp.
    • The German government’s “National Port Concept for Coastal and Inland Harbors,” a package worth some €6.8 billion over the next four years, is set to be officially adopted October 19.
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In 2002, the mail-order firm Otto announced it would begin using inland waterways to ship retail goods from the port city of Hamburg to other parts of the country, using barges on the Elbe river and its tributaries.

Despite the environmental advantages of using boats rather than carbon-dioxide spewing trucks to ship freight, this still hasn’t happened.

Nationwide, freight shipment by truck is 3 percent above the pre-crisis year of 2007, while the volume transported by river vessels has declined by 8.5 percent. This has now drawn the attention of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The finishing touches are being put on a new €6.8 billion ($7.7 billion) package to boost the role of freight shipping in Germany, Handelsblatt has learned.

The “National Port Concept for Coastal and Inland Harbors,” developed by the federal government, German states and shipping associations, is scheduled to be officially adopted at the National Maritime Conference in Bremerhaven on October 19, which Ms. Merkel will attend.

Only 7 percent of what arrives at Hamburg’s port is transported further on Germany's rivers and canals; the rest travels by railroad or highway.

The plan might help companies that want to try what the Otto firm attempted. Thirteen years ago, Otto leader Michael Otto, once named “eco-manager of the year,” announced the retail giant hoped to reduce truck traffic on the highways and cut climate-harming emissions by using inland waterways instead.

The plan was that each year, 500 full containers would arrive from Asia via the North Sea and Elbe river in north Germany’s Port of Hamburg. Then the huge containers would continue their journey on inland waterways to the firm’s distribution center in the Magdeburg-Haldensleben region.

Container-ship line BCF, which operates on the Elbe, now waits in vain for the goods from the mail-order company. Instead, freight is delivered to Otto each day by truck. A company spokesperson says the containers arrive faster by truck than barge. Experts calculate it saves 43 hours during the four-week journey.

A rigorous adherence to the doctrine of “just in time” thus outweighs environmental protection even at self-proclaimed, ecologically-aware companies such as Otto.

Inland water vessels use only one-third the energy – and thus emit correspondingly less CO2 – than transport via trucks.

Only 7 percent of what arrives at Hamburg’s port is transported further on Germany’s rivers and canals; the rest travels by railroad or highway. At Bremerhaven and other ports, the situation is similar. Since 2007, the volume conveyed by inland water vessels declined 8.5 percent to 228.7 million tons. The vessels’ share in overall freight traffic fell to 9.1 percent – with little improvement in sight.

The 800 participants at the upcoming National Maritime Conference have every right to be skeptical about the government’s plans. Up to now, the political establishment has succeeded neither in fostering cooperation among German ports nor in coming up with a convincing plan for connecting ocean ports with harbors in the country’s interior.

The “National Port Concept” promises to help. In a draft obtained by Handelsblatt, there is talk of a “networking between ocean and inland harbors.” And Germany’s minister of transportation is earmarking an extra €5 billion ($5.6 billion) for investments in transport routes during the current legislative period. In 2018 and 2019 respectively, an additional €1.8 billion is to be provided.

But a lack of money is only one obstacle. “At the responsible governmental agencies, there is a shortage of planners and engineers to issue the necessary construction authorizations,” said Daniel Hosseus, managing director of the Central Association of German Ports (ZDS).

The consequences of this staff shortage can be seen throughout the country. On a 69-kilometer stretch between Vilshofen and Straubing, transport on the Danube river repeatedly experiences bottlenecks because an upgrade negotiated in 1966 still exists only on paper.

Former transportation minister Peter Ramsauer, who voiced support for a dam with a sluice gate, is said to have gotten tangled up with the premier of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer. The current transportation minister, Alexander Dobrindt, doesn’t want to hear anything about it.

There have been efforts for years to develop an effective concept for shipping traffic on the Elbe river as well. Industry in eastern Germany has come to avoid the river because shipping traffic often comes to a halt for weeks on end because of low water levels.

This has not stopped the state of Saxony from investing heavily in Elbe harbors such as those at Riesa and Mühlberg. But environmental associations and churches will probably once again manage to torpedo the decision slated for 2015 to deepen and straighten the river in order to ensure a minimum depth.

Industry experts assign part of the blame to companies for the lack of progress. “Their transport expenditures are often more than €1 billion per year,” said Markus Nölke from Short Sea Shipping Promotion Center (SPC). “But as a rule, CEOs show little interest in logistics issues.” Hence they don’t exert pressure on governments.

The SPC is pressuring companies located in Brunsbüttel such as Bayer, Linde and Lanxess as well as Dow Chemical in nearby Stade to come to an agreement on a common shipping line. Up to now, these big chemical companies have transferred their products to Hamburg on trucks.

SPC, which is assured of permanent governmental financing in the “National Port Concept,” is also working on new transportation technology. In the future, a floating tug could be maneuvered on the Weser River up to the deep-sea port at Wilhelmshaven. A pusher tug suitable for ocean transport is supposed to replace the river tug on the short sea segment. That would allow up to 104 standard containers to travel from Wolfsburg, Magdeburg or Dortmund to the ocean harbor at Jadebusenwithin three days.

“If we are able to raise the share of transport by inner waterway vessels to 15 percent once again,” said Mr. Nölke, “we would be quite pleased.”

Christoph Schlautmann covers the logistics and waste management sectors for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: schlautmann@handelsblatt.com

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