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Barge users in northern Europe are facing substantial surcharges as water levels drop amid increasing temperatures, while delays remain a major issue.

Government-imposed draught limitations on the Kaub Gauge, in the Middle Rhine, alongside predicted low water levels – potentially down to 41cm – have resulted in Contargo imposing surcharges of between €201 to €589 ($206-$604) per 20ft box, depending on the water depth, and €259 to €775 per 40ft.

The barge operator said: “Due to the reduced loads barges can carry, additional tonnage has to be chartered on the market. We have had to adjust the low water surcharge because of the massive present increases in charter costs.

“If the situation should become more acute… we reserve the right to make further adjustments to the surcharge.”

The surcharge has only worsened the plight for some barge users, who have faced years of congestion – currently, there are delays of 42 hours into Antwerp and 57 hrs at Rotterdam. and one source told The Loadstar the situation “only gets worse” as delays of this nature are “accepted as the norm”.

“Terminals in Antwerp and Rotterdam maintain their policy of only accepting containers if an equivalent [number] can be delivered to the same transport unit,” said the source. “For trucks, it is one-to-one; for barges, the barge is obliged to accept the same quantity of containers as they bring in; but also, only containers earmarked for a connecting ocean vessel will be accepted.

“This, along with war in Ukraine, is the main reason why overall daily charter rates for barges are rising.”

However, the chief of public affairs and public relations at Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam, Rob Bagchus, challenged claims that northern Europe’s inland waterways are “plagued” by delay.

He noted that many barges are tied to fixed-window transits, and claimed “barges are not facing delays at the moment”, when asked about the impact of low water levels and the fallout from port strikes in Germany.

As to rules of equivalent moves for chartered barges, he said: “We manage yards carefully and take necessary measures to keep the stack levels workable. These do not lead to delays.”

A source noted that the low water surcharges – “which can be explained partly by the high fuel prices combined with lower speed” – were adding “considerable transit time”.

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