A rapid decline in water levels along the Rhine has resulted in barge operators imposing low-water surcharges (LWSs).

While nowhere near last year’s levels, which fell to 32cm, forcing the Rhine’s closure, MSC announced it would pass on to customers LWSs imposed by its barge operator partners on services to or from Antwerp and Rotterdam after the river dipped below 150cm.

“Navigation’s still possible but with reduced capacity,” the carrier told customers. “As a result, reaching closings in the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, all cost arising from this situation, such as demurrage, detention and storage, is not for account of MSC.”

Split into four Rhine gauges or sections, Duisburg, Emmerich, Kaub and Koln, the capacity of each to handle traffic can differ, with Kaub capable of handling below 81cm, while the obligation of carriers to transport along the Duisburg stretch ceases at 181cm.

MSC noted that “surcharges only apply to barge, or barge-road transports both pre and on-carriage from or to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam to Germany, France and Switzerland via the Rhine river. Feeder services between Antwerp and Rotterdam are not affected”.

Cargo owners have grown used to chaos along Europe’s inland transport sector, congestion frequently stretching into days. One former barge owner said news of the surcharge only “added to the difficulties cargo owners wanting to use European transport were grappling with”, adding that the industry as a whole “remains in deep crisis”.

This year, in Belgium alone, more than 275 transport companies – mainly hauliers – filed for bankruptcy, the source told The Loadstar.

“Inland shipping sector faces a number of challenges; for instance, there too many vessels and the demand for transport has decreased. This has led to a decline in freight rates.”

However, the former owner noted that, although there had been a decline in tonnage, there had also been a “significant” rise in container traffic, up 10.95%, the eleventh consecutive annual rise, and said barge operators needed to work on improving efficiencies.

“No doubt the Rhine low water situation will lead to a shift to road transport – rail cannot handle the volumes – adding to the already heavily congested road network,” they said.

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