Inland shipping: Often too shallow
Everybody wants to shift more goods to inland barges, but many plans are coming along rather slowly. The mode is struggling with low water levels and declining dry bulk cargo volumes. There is some cause for optimism in the Benelux region, however.
In May the German transport minister Andreas Scheuer presented a master plan for the inland shipping industry. Its overarching aim is to provide inland waterway goods transport in Germany with a foot up and help the sector to attract more cargo from the roads. Now the European Barge Union’s latest annual report has shown that a major effort is required to ensure a greater share of the total volume of goods for the long-neglected mode of transport. Germany’s commitment is certainly important, but other countries have to pull their weight too.
Long periods of low water levels in the second half of the year was one of the main snags impeding smooth inland barge operations in 2018. The river Rhine was particularly badly effected; the situation was only slightly less grave in Belgium, France, northern Germany and on the river Danube.
Banking on boxes
Naturally enough, this had an impact on the sector’s transport performance. Only Belgium, Luxembourg and Poland were able to improve traffic vis-à-vis 2017; every other country registered a decline.
The fact that two of the sector’s most important countries – namely Germany and the Netherlands – registered the largest overall declines weighed particularly heavily on the industry. The fact that less dry bulk cargo and chemical products tend to be transported forces the inland shipping industry to try to garner more contracts to transport containers.
The segment has achieved some success in this field, albeit far too slowly. The low water levels are partially to blame for stagnant container transport volumes on the EU’s inland waterways (6.8 million teu). As it is the segment is almost exclusively concentrated on Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Belgium is the only player in this foursome to register a small plus. That country’s inland shipping is less dependent on the Rhine. It managed to significantly increase the share of containers transported by barge in the modal split.
Paris and Liège on the rise
The maritime ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg also play an important role for inland barges. The general decline in 2018 was noticeable there too. Previous years saw the segment stagnate in Rotterdam and grow in Antwerp. The decline in volumes that Hamburg has registered since 2015 continued. The continent’s largest inland port of Duisburg also saw traffic decline, as was the case for almost all facilities on the Rhine. The second and third-ranked hubs, Paris and Liège respectively, both grew and managed to fortify their overall position.
One of the inland shipping industry’s problems is that its fleets are frequently outdated. Last year, around 15,000 inland barges were registered in Europe. Investment has to focus on the long-term horizon, on account of the vessels’ longevity.
48 new ships were launched on the Rhine last year, where almost two thirds of all ships ply their trade. The overall number of vessels operating continues to decline, slowly but steadily; capacities are rising, however, because many smaller units are disappearing. Comparing the age structure of the fleets reveals that Belgium is one step ahead of Germany in terms of modernisation.
Germany’s northern neighbour has built significantly more vessels in the 21st century. The former is dominated by units that entered service in the second half of the 20th century. It might be a good idea for Germany to take a leaf out of its neighbours books if it wants to successfully implement its master plan for the inland shipping industry.