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Ships passing through the Kiel Canal, a key shipping artery and vital to the success of Germany’s main container gateways of Hamburg and Bremerhaven, could continue to face delays for the next seven years, it was claimed this week.

Ship agency GAC warned that waiting times for vessels of over 125 metres in length and 6.5 metres draught trying to enter at the western Brunsbuttel Lock had lengthened to 12 hours, while at the eastern entrance at Kiel-Holtenau, there were delays of up to four hours.

The canal is almost 120 years old and, with up to 37,000 transits each year, more traffic passes through its ancient locks than through the Suez and Panama canals combined. However, it has suffered from a chronic lack of investment by successive federal governments – which, for a country that prides itself on its infrastructure achievements and maritime heritage, is particularly galling to those in the shipping industry.

“The problems are due to lack of maintenance over the past 25 years,” one local source told The Loadstar.

He explained that plans to build a new lock at Brunsbüttel and to deepen and widen the canal have existed since the 1980s, but following the reunification of Germany in 1989, canal traffic dropped steeply as the former East German fleet disappeared and the Soviet Union broke up – both had relied on it as an access point to the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. As a result, federal infrastructure funds had switched into the rebuilding of East Germany, particularly its road network.

Thus the canal was unprepared for the surge in Baltic traffic that has taken place over the past 15 years, especially box cargo feedered from Hamburg and Bremerhaven.

Locks that were designed in 1900 – as the age of steam came to an end – were unable to deal with modern vessels. Ships today seldom turn off their propellers when docking in the lock, as it is hugely fuel inefficient. This created such stress that the Brunsbüttel lock gate wheels, which ran on rails on the floor of the lock, sheered off and the gates now run on wooden skids.

The canal has four sets of locks: two for vessels of up to 125 metres long; and a larger pair that can take ships of up to 310 metres. In spring last year, both sets of locks, at either end of the canal, were closed, which meant ships had to divert around the Danish coast – in some cases, a deviation of hundreds of miles.

This was a crisis that finally elicited a response from the German government, according to Alexander Geisler, managing director of VHSS, Hamburg’s ship agents’ association. He is clearly frustrated with the lack of consideration the canal has been given by the government in Berlin, which remains ultimately responsible for its funding.

“We formed a coalition with shipowners, agents, freight forwarders and even the maritime pilots, and went to Berlin to do a lot of lobbying. The Kiel Canal is so important for the ports of Bremen and Hamburg, while a lot of exports from Bavaria and southern Germany destined for Russia and the Baltic states go through Kiel.

“But so many people in Germany simply don’t realise this; while the minster for infrastructure is from Bavaria, and for him the priority is roads,” he told The Loadstar.

Nonetheless, Dr Geisler’s efforts in Berlin were successful, with the government committing to repairing the big lock at Brunsbüttel and greenlighting plans to build a fifth lock there. This is scheduled to cost over €300m, but could handle ships of up to 330 metres.

With a Kiel-max containership set at around 1,400teu, to allow the canal to handle larger vessels would require it to be dredged and widened, which could cost at least another €1bn.

But just repairing the Brunsbüttel lock will be no easy task. Work is expected to take until at least April, depending on the weather, while construction of the fifth lock will take between six and seven years, which Dr Geisler said would likely cause further delays to shipping operations.

“The big problem is that the shipping companies need reliability; the supply chain needs reliability; and if we can’t minimise the risk of delays or a vessel getting locked in, we will lose business. Everyone knows this in Kiel – they work incredibly hard to keep it open,” he added.

However, many in Hamburg also worry that if the delays are prolonged, shipping lines might opt for the longer route on a more permanent basis.

Their fear is competition from Rotterdam and Antwerp. Due to these ports being further from the canal, deviation around Denmark is less of an issue, and both have long looked to attract Baltic transhipment business away from its traditional home in Germany.

According to the Kiel Canal authority, transiting the canal would save a line 332 miles on a passage to St Petersburg from Hamburg, compared with the route around Denmark; however, it would save only 182 miles originating from Rotterdam. With canal transit fees and long delays, the passage around Denmark looks more attractive, and ships have already begun to make the diversion.

Local agents don’t believe a permanent shift will occur, however.

“Some vessels have decided to take the route via Skaw but we are confident that they will return when the operation is back to normal,” one told The Loadstar. “Last year, during the closure of the Kiel Canal, all traffic went via Denmark, but soon after the re-opening it all came back. So we are confident that we need to overcome the repair period and bring shipping back to the Kiel Canal.”

But the delays are already costing shippers more. North European feeder operator Team Lines has imposed a €17.5 per teu Kiel Canal surcharge, “to compensate additional waiting time by means of higher service speed which led to higher bunker consumption and additional operational costs during the port stay”.

And Hapag-Lloyd will implement a €18.5 per teu surcharge from the beginning of February.

Neither carrier appears to hold much hope that the problems surrounding the canal will be solved anytime soon – a situation that is laced with irony, as Dr Geisler observed: “The funny thing is that, over a century ago, the Kiel Canal was built in eight years and now we are talking six years just to build one lock.”

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  • Lou Roll

    January 29, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    Interesting article, thanks. Odd to see Germany’s governments being so passive, while their country is so dependent on foreign trade, and therefore on transport and logistics infrastructures.