Germany looks to modest solutions to Rhine’s problems

The Rhine is vital to the freight transport infrastructure of much of North Western Europe, yet it is struggling to keep up with existing demand let alone projected increases in freight. The German government has included improvements in its latest investment plans, however it is unclear whether this will be sufficient.  

The Rhine experienced two major problems over the past twelve months. Firstly, there has been severe congestion in the barge terminals serving the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. This was followed by low-water levels on the upper-Rhine. The latter problem was more severe, bringing freight operations to halt and causing the very large chemical facility at Ludwigshafen to curb production so significantly that it depressed GDP growth in Germany.

The issue of low water levels is hard to deal with. It is not new, the upper Rhine has had low level before, although recent conditions have been particularly bad. The issue of barge congestion is more self-inflicted. It goes to the heart of the issue, that the Dutch and Belgium ports have a mismatch between the capacity of their marine terminals and that of their inland transport infrastructure.

To try and deal with this the German government is articulating what it describes as a “master plan for inland shipping ” and the Federal transport minister, Volker Wissing, commented on a visit of the port of Rotterdam last week that the German federal government would “quickly implement the project to optimise unloading along the Middle Rhine”. He continued, “to ensure supply for the population and companies along the Rhine, we need an efficient waterway and greater speed in carrying out transport projects along the Rhine corridor….The low water levels of 2018 have revealed the urgent need to expand the role of the Rhine as the central European transport and logistics axis”.

The problem is that with the continued growth of terminals such as the Maasvlatke 2, the volume of containers being moved into the hinterland around the Rhine is growing. Modest adjustments to traffic on the Rhine may not be enough. Certainly, the port of Rotterdam is pressing for the development of a new freight railway along the Rhine, however the German government does not yet seem on-board with this.  

Congestion is a real threat to the competitiveness of the port and logistics sector in the Benelux economies and western Germany. Coordination between different governments is difficult and the Germans have until now been parsimonious in their approach to investment infrastructure. However, time is short.

Source: Transport Intelligence, July 9, 2019

Author: Thomas Cullen