For more than a year, the port of Hamburg has been suffering from the fact that seagoing ships are late as a result of the corona pandemic. The problem is likely to persist for a few more months. Nevertheless, the port can look back on a successful first half of the year with sea freight throughput of 63.5 million tons, which is an increase of 3.8 percent. The traditional focus is on container transport: 3.8 million loaded boxes (TEU) were handled, an increase of 6.9 percent, said Axel Mattern, CEO of Port of Hamburg Marketing (HHM) during an online press conference on Monday. Most of the containers remain in the region or are distributed across Europe by rail. What is often overlooked: Hamburg is also a large inland shipping port. “Ten percent of the amount is transported on by barge,” said Stefan Kunze, HHM representative in East Germany.
Inland navigation also plays an important role for the economy along the north / north-east German waterway network. Every year, 24.4 million tons of goods are moved on the waterways of this region with its 88 inland ports. In order to exploit the opportunities of the comparatively environmentally friendly mode of transport, HHM commissioned a study together with the Elbe Lateral Canal Alliance and the Elbe Alliance.
The work written by Planco Consult, on which the Bremen Institute for Shipping Economics and Logistics (ISL) also contributed, shows that there is still massive potential for relocation, especially in container traffic. This is evident from the fact that only seven percent of the million tons are accounted for by containers; in maritime transport there are ten times as many. By far the largest part consists of bulk goods such as ores, coal and scrap. Here, the Port of Hamburg achieved significant double-digit growth in some cases in the first half of the year. Important customers are steelworks. Mineral oil products, especially from Hamburg and Brunsbüttel, and building material exports via ports in Bremen also play an important role.
Gunnar Platz from Planco sees unused capacity, especially for traffic from the Braunschweig and Magdeburg area. Around 55,000 TEU are transported by truck in the greater Braunschweig / Wolfsburg area, and a further 50,000 TEU in the Magdeburg area. “Inland shipping could easily skim off some of these quantities,” said Kunze. Large-capacity and heavy transports are also well suited for the waterway, provided that the necessary access to the loading points is created. In addition, a shift from rail to barge could relieve the limited capacities of the railways.
In the corona pandemic, inland shipping has proven to be economical and punctual. But there are still “bottlenecks,” said Platz. Above all, the ship lift in Scharnebeck near Lüneburg is regarded as such. The 100-meter-short troughs in which more than 15,000 freight ships overcome the height difference from the Elbe to the Elbe Lateral Canal – the connection to the Ruhr area – are too small today. Large coupling groups have to be divided and then put back together again later. That costs time and money. Only one trough is currently in operation. Modern units such as large Rhine ships cannot use the ship lift at all, not to mention large motor cargo ships 135 meters in length. The international trend is towards mega-ship units that can stack three layers of containers on top of each other. From the shipowner’s point of view, these are more economical, but they are also more environmentally friendly, as engines and ship design are more powerful than older ships. At the same time, political uncertainty is preventing many companies from investing in new, fuel-efficient engines. Which fuels will be available in the future, where can electricity be “refueled”? “Where the journey is going”, said Platz, will soon have to be regulated by political guidelines.
In its Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan, the federal government has provided 270 million euros for the construction of the Scharnebeck lock. “The lock will be a technically fascinating structure,” says HHM enthusiastically. As the highest lock in Europe, it will compensate for a height difference of 38 meters. With a chamber length of 225 meters, even the largest inland waterways can be transported. The lock is built as a so-called economy lock to save energy and water.
It is also important to keep the Elbe navigable upstream, warns Sebastian Poser from the Elbe Alliance. The Elbe was navigable this summer. But that’s not the case every summer. The Czech Republic and Germany want to work together to create better conditions for shipping to the north-east. At the end of July, the Czech Transport Minister Karel Havlíček (independent) and his German counterpart Andreas Scheuer (CSU) signed a government agreement. Details should be clarified in autumn.