Their leisurely pace on rivers and canals can sometimes hide the great importance of barges in logistics. A single one of these cargo ships with four so-called lighters and a transport capacity of 7000 tons replaces 175 railway wagons or 280 trucks in terms of loading.
Those steel troughs without a motor drive that an inland waterway vessel can push in front of or alongside its own cargo hold are referred to as barges or barges. Without inland shipping and its capacities, the supply of building materials, chemical products, grain or even petrol and diesel would not be secure in large parts of Germany.
This applies even more to the transport of coal. Last year, German bargemen alone transported around 29 million tons of coal from the three ports of Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam via the Rhine. Customers are steelmakers and power plants. But that could be a problem in the coming weeks.
During this time, coal-fired power plants that have already been shut down with a total output of four gigawatts will be put back into operation and these electricity producers will need large amounts of coal.
At the same time, the federal government wants to shut down gas-fired power plants in order to reduce the use of gas and thus the dependency on supplies from Russia. Bargemen and their associations are now sounding the alarm.
Their fear is that if the power plant operators start up the plants at the same time, not all of them can be supplied with coal. “There is no emergency reserve of shipping space,” says Jens Schwanen, Managing Director of the Federal Association of German Inland Shipping. There is already full employment on the Rhine. “Anything that can swim is used,” says Schwanen.
Industry companies confirm the assessment. “Since the first quarter of this year, many industrial sites and power plants have been ramping up coal again, so the situation on the Rhine can certainly be described as tense,” says Steffen Bauer, CEO of HGK Shipping.
Alongside the transport company Rhenus, HGK Shipping is the largest ship fleet operator on the Rhine. “The available shipping space will probably not be able to fully handle the requested transport volumes,” says Bauer.
The situation is also explosive because cargo ships are currently being sought for use in Eastern Europe. “A lot of capacity is being withdrawn in the direction of the Danube to be used for transporting grain from the Ukraine,” says HGK boss Bauer.
An industry colleague expresses himself clearly. “Currently, ships are being bought like crazy. Insane money is paid by buyers from Romania in particular,” says the manager, who does not wish to be named.
Due to the shortage of shipping space, there will be serious bottlenecks on the Rhine by August at the latest. Customers are already very nervous. “We will not be able to serve our customers in the way they are used to,” says the manager.
The situation is also getting worse at Europe’s largest storage point for hard coal, in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam. According to the Port of Rotterdam Authority, the coal terminals are filled to capacity. Being able to transport the coal to the hinterland has become a challenge over the past few weeks.
And supplies are urgent: at the end of June, 71 dry cargo carriers were waiting at anchor in the North Sea because they could not be handled in the ports. That’s three times the usual number of ships in the queue. According to the data agency Kpler Insight, the current waiting time for coal ships is around ten days.
Coping with the situation could become even more difficult – if it comes to the so-called low water. “The situation will worsen as the water levels drop and transport capacities will decrease,” says HGK boss Bauer.
The next four weeks are crucial for inland navigation on the Rhine. If there is not enough land rain on the Upper Rhine, the water level will not be sufficient for the ship transport that is currently urgently needed.
“If we have a longer dry period with falling water levels, the already scarce shipping space will become even scarcer,” says Schwanen, head of the association. Ships are then no longer allowed to sail with a full load. Instead of handling the quantities in a single trip, the barges would then have to make two or three trips – with the corresponding consequences.
Politicians have hardly learned any lessons from the extreme low water four years ago. For a long time, the fairway has been to be deepened by 20 centimeters to 2.10 meters on a stretch of 50 kilometers on the Middle Rhine. Then the Rhine would have a uniform sailing depth. But nothing has happened so far.
What is also missing is a future perspective for the most important participants, the inland waterway skippers. Hardly any of them are currently willing to invest five or six million euros in another cargo ship.
If it is no longer needed in two or three years, the small business owner will have to shut down the freighter at a loss. One demand is that the state must provide subsidies and secure investments.
In Germany, around 2000 ship units are in operation on rivers and canals. In addition, there are the large fleets of ships of the Dutch, Belgians and French on the Rhine. All together, around 10,000 units are available. What is meant are inland waterway vessels as well as those pushed barges.
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