Germany’s waterway trade suffers under broken locks

Ship in the Friedrichsfeld lock. Credit: Wikipedia/Maarten

Germany’s locks are ageing and the lack of maintenance and upgrades for them threatens the navigation of ships through the country’s inland waterways, the federal association of inland navigation (Bundesverband der Deutschen Binnenschifffahrt, BDB) has warned.

In total, Germany has 300 locks to enable navigation of 7,300 km of inland waterways – of which the Rhine is the longest with 900 km. 60% of locks were built before 1950, 20% before the start of the 20th century, resulting in currently high maintenance demand due to the old structures.

The government has reacted to the claims and launched a masterplan for inland waterways earlier this year. “The status of the inland waterways infrastructure is a mirror of a lack of investment of the past years,” the federal ministry for traffic and digital infrastructure’s states in the masterplan’s report, promising to work on climate change-induced flood risks, digitising construction projects, as well as transporting more cargo via waterways than on land.

It also confirmed that every fifth lock has to be replaced or substantially refurbished, resulting in costs of about EUR5.2 billion (USD5.8 billion). If those works are not being carried out, shipping might come to a stop as shippers struggle to find vessels small enough that could pass through alternative routes. However, the ministry has only committed to spend EUR969 million of its budget and states that maintenance will be prioritised instead of building new locks. While the ministry has created 161 jobs for the necessary work, it argues that plans have not come into fruition because it struggles to find engineers that can fill these positions.

In addition, the replacement parts needed for the old locks have become a rarity, resulting in maintenance taking longer. For example, for years is has been known that the bollards for the six locks along the Wesel-Datteln Canal, whic connects the Rhine with the industrial west of Germany, are worn out and ships sometimes pull them out. Here and elsewhere those have been replaced against lock staff that manually tows the ships, which slows the lock-passing process down.

“We struggle to find spare parts for the lock, and two years ago, we even struggled to find a technician who is familiar with our lock system. At that time, there were two people in Germany still at work who could repair it,” Marius Jazynka, lock master at the Friedrichsfeld lock told the German public broadcaster WDR.

“If this waterway becomes unavailable, then we will have significant problems operating production facilities,” warned Jörg Harren, chief executive officer of industrial cluster Chemiepark Marl that relies on the Wesel-Datteln Canal.

The BDB’s and Harren’s concerns are also a result of what they experienced during a hot summer last year and fears of facing the same struggle again. During a hot and dry 2018, some of the German waterways were no longer navigational because of low water levels. This resulted in economic damages – especially for companies using the Rhine to transport products – as well as high petrol prices because less fuel was transported via the rivers and, thus, a drop in cargo trade.

“Freight transport on Germany’s inland waterways fell by 11.1 % in 2018,” the German Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) announced this year. According to Destatis, a total of 198 million tonnes of goods were transported via German inland waterways last year, a significant drop from 222.7 million tonnes in 2017.

The drop correlates with the low water levels and occurred between August and November, with November showing a 34% reduction in traffic compared with 2017.