Inland waterway transport systems

in Trends by
Vessel traffic and cargo and tanker density with FleetMon Explorer for real-time vessel tracking, Mississippi River, New Orleans area

A key cog in the wheel of global supply chains

The huge barge chugs its way southwards towards the Gulf of Mexico. A passer-by on the banks of the Mississippi can hardly hear the boat’s engine: the other shoreline is scarcely visible, so wide is America’s second-longest river at 3,730 km. Its length is just one of the Mississippi’s many superlatives. As an inland waterway transport system (IWTS), its economic significance cannot be overstated.

The Mississippi – lifeline for the economy

According to the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, barge transportation plays a key role in the US economy. More than 60% of US grain exports move by barge as well as over 22% of domestic petroleum and petroleum products and 20% of the coal used in electricity generation. Regular barge transportation services connect the inland ports of the Mississippi to seaports on the Gulf of Mexico, where grain cargoes from the US Corn Belt and industrial goods from all over the States are transhipped onto ocean-going vessels.

As Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway, points out, “the nation’s inland port system … plays a critical role in the global supply chain”. Scott Sigman, transport and export infrastructure lead for the Illinois Soybean Association, knows how crucial the IWTS is: “60% of our exports are going to the Gulf.” And it’s always two-way traffic. Huge quantities of imports from all over the world reach the US domestic market via transhipment facilities on the Gulf of Mexico. Barge transportation is energy-efficient, relieves road and rail congestion, and has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than road or rail transportation.

Efficient means of transport

With the worldwide demand for waterborne commerce expected to double by 2025, inland waterways will continue to play a key role in global supply chains. Germany is no exception. In 2019 Germany’s inland shipping sector moved 205 million tonnes of cargo, or 7.3% of the total volume of goods transported in Germany. A relatively small share, true, but a highly efficient and ecologically sound means of transport. A tonne of cargo can be transported 370 km by barge, 300 km by train and only 100 km by lorry on the same quantity of primary energy. Inland shipping’s tonne-km performance per tonne of cargo has doubled in the past 30 years, while the personnel involved has halved – an extremely efficient means of transport, if nothing else. But if you put that 2019 figure in the context of the past decade, you discover a more disturbing truth. In 2017 the overall cargo volume was nearly 6% higher at 228 million tonnes and from 2013 onwards, inland shipping’s share of the total cargo volume transported in Germany has fallen significantly. The reason: low water levels on rivers like the Rhine and Elbe.

Low water levels: a threat to river transport

Climate change is threatening the economic viability of inland shipping across Germany, and in other countries of Europe too. In 2018, the Rhine’s low water levels forced the chemical giant BASF to stop production of the important plastics precursor TDI at its Ludwigshafen complex. They had run out of raw materials. 55% of the incoming volume flows to the world’s largest chemical complex come by barge. Although 2018 was a severe drought year, it only reflected a decades-long trend. Between 1921 and 2002 just 88 low-water events were recorded at the Kaub measuring point in the Mid-Rhine Valley. Between 2003 and 2018 there were 123. “The Rhine is our lifeblood,” says BASF’s head of logistics, Ralf Busche. “Without the Rhine this site would no longer be competitive.” As the low water levels in 2018 cost BASF hundreds of millions of euros, the company invested in digital water-level forecasting tools, offered barge operators subsidies to buy modern vessels combining less depth and greater cargo capacity, and even developed just such a barge on its own.

Significance of inland waterways for global supply chains

Ocean-going shipping cannot afford to ignore the impact climate change is having on the IWTS in Germany and other European countries. After all, inland shipping is a key cog in the wheel of intermodal supply chains, particularly in the transportation of bulk cargoes. Jörg Peters, port development officer for Bremen’s Senate, had this to say at the #IWTS 2.0 Conference in 2019: “Inland shipping is not just a topic for the Rhine; it is of particular interest to the ports of North Germany. Our goal is that this means of transport is seen as a serious alternative to road transport.”

Futureproofing inland shipping

But not all is drought-induced doom and gloom. At that same conference, the Swedish representative reported that since 2015 cargo barges have been operating for the first time in intermodal operations on the country’s rivers and lakes. What’s more, digitization initiatives in Germany are making inland shipping fit for the future. The development of autonomous barges is being furthered in test-and-trial projects initiated by North-Rhine Westphalia and the German Aerospace Centre, and a web-based training platform is being set up to school existing personnel and young recruits in the use of digital tools. “Modal shift is mind shift” is the motto of this digitization initiative. In recognising the intermodal potential of IWTS, that would also be a suitable motto for the ocean-going shipping sector.