European barge operators have called for tax breaks, lower port charges and increased investment to counter a slump in inland waterway traffic.
Inland waterways are facing a crisis “of an unprecedented intensity and of an unknown duration,” according to the European Barge Union.
A “serious” overcapacity of barges has also led to a decline in freight rates, the Brussels-based EBU said.
Container traffic on the river Rhine, Europe’s top commercial waterway, fell by 30 percent in the first five months of the year compared with the same period in 2008.
Bulk shipments, particularly coal and iron ore, suffered even steeper declines after steel companies slashed production and closed plants. Steel traffic on French waterways fell 27 percent this year and chemical products are down 54 percent, according to the EBU.
Barge traffic in Antwerp, Europe’s third largest box hub, fell 17 percent from a year ago and bulk volumes are down 40 percent.
EBU president Philippe Grulois called for the European Union to aid the industry by boosting spending on maintenance and removing bottlenecks, reducing red tape and lowering port fees and taxes.
The EU should also encourage the European Investment Bank, its long term lending arm, to increase loans to barge operators to help them survive the downturn, Grulois told the EBU’s annual meeting in Bonn, Germany.
The EBU also called on national governments to increase spending on their domestic waterways.
Barge operators, who account for around 30 percent Rotterdam’s hinterland traffic and 33 percent of inland shipments to and from Antwerp, have been hard hit by the slump in container volumes at the two ports. Rotterdam’s box traffic fell 16 percent in the first quarter and Antwerp was down 16.6 percent.
Before the slump, barges carried around 2 million TEUs a year between Rotterdam and Antwerp and accounted for 30 percent of the 6 million TEUs annual traffic at inland container terminals in Germany, France and Switzerland.
Europe has 18,000 miles of navigable rivers and canals dominated by the Rhine-Main-Danube waterway, which dissects the continent and connects the North Sea and the Black Sea.
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