Hamburg looks east

Juergen Sorgenfrei grew up 40 kilometers from the border between East and West Germany, and during his German military service, he was stationed near the Berlin Wall.

Today, Sorgenfrei marvels at the changes that have unfolded since the end of the Cold War. He also marvels at the prospect that the Port of Hamburg is expected to finish this year with a record 10 million TEUs of container volume.

Those developments aren't unrelated. Sorgenfrei, the energetic chairman of Port of Hamburg Marketing (HHM), says the opening of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has shifted Hamburg's cargo activity into a higher gear.

"Hamburg used to be at the edge of Europe," he said. "Now we're at the center." The opening of eastern and central Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States has expanded Hamburg's hinterland and created opportunities that continue to blossom for both imports and exports.

During the first nine months of this year, Hamburg's container volume jumped 14 percent, largely because of increased trade with countries in the former Soviet bloc. Shipments to and from Russia alone increased by more than 40 percent during the first half of this year.

Nearly one-third of the port's containers, which totaled nearly 8.9 million TEUs in 2006, now move to or from eastern Europe and the former CIS. An approximately equal volume moves to Scandinavia and the Baltic region by 175 scheduled feeder ship departures per week from Hamburg.

Although the recent strike by German rail workers against Deutsche Bahn caused a hiccup in port cargo activity, intermodal rail has emerged as one of Hamburg's top strengths. Two intermodal rail operators connect Hamburg with inland points. Polzug serves eastern points, and Transfracht operates primarily to cities throughout Germany and in Austria and Switzerland.

About 70 percent of long-distance hinterland traffic from Hamburg goes by rail. While 400 to 500 miles is considered the minimum practical distance for intermodal operation in the U.S., higher trucking costs reduce the truck-or-rail breakpoint in Europe to as little as 150 miles. About 200 freight trains serve the port daily, a number expected to rise to 450 to 500 by 2015.

By 2009, the deepening of Hamburg's shipping channel on the Elbe River is expected to be completed. The dredging project will increase the port's draft to 48 feet at low tide and 53.5 feet at high tide - enough to handle the larger ships that are entering service on mainline routes from Asia to North Europe.

Port officials expect the added intermodal services, the channel-deepening project and the continued growth in trade to help Hamburg reach 18 million TEUs a year by 2015 - more than four times the 4.2 million TEUs that Hamburg handled in 2000.

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