RMD canal: the weak link?

Source: ECN

1992/01/12

Geraint Roberts

Navigation difficulties, few storage facilities, a passage through Serbia and restricted traffic due to the number of locks. All in all, the route from Rotterdam to the Black Sea - linked up by the new RMD canal - may not be all it is cracked up to be.

THIS SEPTEMBER the Rhine and Danube rivers were finally joined together with the completion of the Rhine-Main-Danube (RMD) canal, creating one continuous waterway stretching from the North Sea ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp to their less familiar counterparts such as Constanza and Galatz in the Black Sea. But despite the hype which has accompanied the canal's opening, it is unlikely to offer many opportunities to European barge operators, say shipowners, for at least five years.

Trade should eventually be boosted between western Europe and the central European countries of Austria, the Czech republic, Slovakia (whose capital, Bratislava, is situated on the Danube's banks) and Hungary. But EC shipowners may not be willing to undertake much longer voyages to eastern Europe considering the shortage of backhaul cargoes to the west. A barge would take nearly a month to travel from Rotterdam to the Black Sea, while a conventional cargo with ten times the capacity would take at most only ten days to sail via Gibraltar.

The EC is keen to shift freight from Europe's severely congested roads to its railways and waterways. In fact, there are already rumours that the German railway network may cut its freight rates by up to 50% if it decides the canal is mounting a serious challenge to its market.

But the DGVII will still have to reverse the current trend - whereby the share of EC freight traffic using inland waterways fell from 12.5% to 9% during 1984-89 - if it is to achieve its stated aim.

Predictions on the level of RMD canal traffic in the next few years vary from 3m to 20m tonne/year. Most will be bulk freight because the number of locks and bridges on the waterway makes it too slow for most containerised shipments. Bridge heights restrict the stacking of containers on deck to just two high.

The project, originally the idea of the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, cost DM4.7bn ($2.9bn) to complete and the construction firm will not repay loans until 2032 at the earliest. Critics say the company will be lucky to attract 3m tonne/year of goods - a mere one sixth of the canal's capacity. Its 16 locks limit traffic to only 16 vessels/day while special barges had to be designed after it was discovered that the Danube's 'ro-ro' vessels, which operate between Passau and Vidin in Bulgaria, were too big for the canal.

Trans-European traffic could be stopped instantly if the Croatia-Serbia war breaks out once more. The Danube forms part of the border between Croatia and the autonomous region of Vojvodina in Serbia. The town of Vukovar, only a few kilometres from the river, was destroyed in last year's fighting, while Vojvodina's largely Hungarian population is becoming increasingly restless under Serbian control.

Barges are passing through Serbia at the moment but according to a local press report published on 2 September, the Serbian minister of transport Zarko Katic introduced tolls for navigation on the river in response to the ban on navigation by Serbian barges covering the German, Austrian, Czechoslovak and Hungarian sections.

But to those barge operators expected to be the first to capitalise on the canal -namely the German and Dutch - the navigation difficulties on the canal and on the German section of the Danube are more immediate problems. A barge loading in Rotterdam, for example, has to take into account different water levels on the Rhine, the RMD canal and the Danube, while the German stretch of the Danube is not canalised and providing enough locks could take another five years. Only then, think bargemen, will the canal's potential be realised and trade take off with central Europe.

According to Marius van den Elshout of the Dutch NEA research institute, the RMD canal should be able to take 2000 tonne motor vessels carrying 1500 tonne. But compared to the Rhine the canal is small - similar in size to the Mosel, with a draught of 2.7 metre - while the Main has only recently increased its draught to 2.5 metre. The normal maximum draught for 2000 tonne vessels is 2.9 metre to 3.1 metre.

The Danube's depth is often extremely low, varying between 1.5 and 2.0 metre depending on rainfall, and can change rapidly. Travelling from Rotterdam to the Danube takes more than a week and so planning a vessel's cargoes will require a large safety margin and reduced cargo-hold utilisation - especially as chemicals cannot be partially unloaded and stored at intermediate ports easily. Traffic on the Austrian section of the river fell by 17% to 7m tonne in 1991, mainly due to low water levels.

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The canal and the Danube suffer from a lack of chemical storage facilities because most chemical plants in the region were built away from waterways and have used road and rail transport. The necessary investment is unlikely to come from the central European countries without support from the West.

Gebr Broere's river tank barging manager Pierre Kreuze said his company was prepared to invest in storage facilities once it becomes clear where the best locations are, and Broere is not ruling out the possibility of joint ventures with central European shipowners if they can bring their barges up to a technical standard comparable with that in western Europe.

Central European barges are currently 'coping', say shipowners, with the ADN recommendations set out by the UN's Economic Commission which cover the transport of dangerous goods by inland waterways. The recommendations -more than 20 years old - may be tightened up and upgraded to a legally binding Convention. Also, new rules covering navigation of the Rhine come into force next year.

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Safety standards, however, could pose a problem for east European barge operators. The Central Rhine Commission will probably amend the ADNR regulations at the beginning of next year, making them dependent on the type of product rather than the type of ship, and thus aligning them more closely with the provisions of RID, ADR and the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. As the rules are phased in over a number of years, certain types of dangerous goods will have to be carried in the latest model double-hulled vessels.

Overcapacity of tonnage remains a problem on the Rhine network where freight rates for large, easy chemical cargoes of 1000-2000 tonne have slipped around DM4 to DM8-9/tonne in the last 18 months. East European fleets are already entering the western market with dry cargo ships coming in from Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Rhine shippers are worried in case the Danube fleet does the same.

Danube traders, such as ICD in Bratislava, are enthusiastic about the long-term potential of the canal. General manager Pavol Pleva sees business opportunities in the west for traders active on the Danube. ICD, which mainly puts benzene, phenol, cyclohexane and plastics on the river, regularly trades with Hamburg and Rotterdam.

Making the newcomers contribute to the EC 'scrapping' fund should be a necessary first step, say western shipowners. The law, introduced in 1990 to continue the drive towards fleet renewal and reduction, offers barge owners DM470 payment for each dead weight tonne scrapped, with a similar penalty for each tonne built.

Shipowners in the EC also want eastern barges to pay the annual premium for operating on the Rhine and the Ecu216/tonne charge for adding capacity to the river if they begin to operate outside the current system of bilateral agreements. These were started by Germany and have since been copied by other west European countries, all fearing that an EC-wide scheme will be too liberal towards the eastern shipowners.

Brussels wants to negotiate all traffic agreements on behalf of the EC states with non-EC countries bordering the Danube because the bilateral system discriminates against barges from some EC states. Under the Act of Mannheim of 1868, signed by Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland, Danube operators can trade freely in western Europe providing the company has 50% of its capital in the west, but so far this proviso has proved prohibitive.

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