© Stephan Bock

The long-running saga of the deepening of the river Elbe will be decided this year by the German Federal Court, with dredging now expected to commence in 2017.

It has been calculated that the deepening of the Lower and Outer Elbe would enable an ultra-large container vessel (ULCV) to load around 1,800 teu more per call at the port of Hamburg.

Approval of the project, which also includes a 385-metre-wide passing point for vessels, has long been considered “essential” for the growth of the port, but for years planning has been mired in rounds of court action and counter-action.

However, a spokesman for Port of Hamburg’s marketing division told The Loadstar this morning that “it hoped to hear a positive decision” from the court before the end of the year, enabling work to start as soon as possible next year.

The news comes as Hamburg publishes nine-month throughput figures showing flat growth at its container terminals, compared with the same period of 2015, at 6.7m teu.

Nevertheless, the result means Hamburg’s container throughput has stabilised following a 9.3% plunge in volumes in 2015.

And Germany’s leading port enjoyed a bounce-back in trade with Russia – a substantial drop the key factor in the 2015 decline – as its trade advanced by 4.4% quarter-on-quarter to 337,000 teu.

Furthermore, Russia’s currency has also stabilised, and there is even talk of EU sanctions being lifted by early next year.

Hamburg also reported some intermodal progress. At the port’s quarterly press conference yesterday, Ingo Egloff, joint chief executive of Port of Hamburg Marketing, said: “By comparison with other leading European ports, in the first three quarters of 2016 Hamburg further expanded freight volumes transported by rail.”

Mr Egloff said 1.8m teu of cargo moved to and from the port by rail during the first nine months, representing a 1.9% gain on the year before.

But negative trade developments were recorded in container traffic to Sweden and Poland, as increased exchanges on direct calls by carriers at Gothenburg and Gdansk resulted in throughput downturns of 15.4% and 14.1% respectively to the Baltic countries.

Meanwhile, the number of 14,000-19,000 teu ULCVs handled at Hamburg doubled – from 88 ships in the first nine months of 2015, to 163 vessels in the same period this year. This is taken as evidence that ocean carriers continue to value a direct call at the port and are prepared to work in the interim with loading restrictions, as long as the Elbe deepening project eventually comes to fruition.

Indeed, in the alliance pro-forma network plans for North Europe published in the past two weeks, Hamburg appears to be well served by two new vessel-sharing groups from next April.

According to the preliminary schedules, the Ocean Alliance will feature a Hamburg call on five of its six North European loops, while THE Alliance said it would make a call at the German port on all five of its loops.

For the nine-month period, rival European container hubs Rotterdam and Antwerp posted throughput figures of 9.3m teu and 7.5m teu respectively.

In the case of Rotterdam this represented flat growth, where a strong third-quarter recovery made up for losses in the first half, while Antwerp recorded a 4% year-on-year increase, after the rapid 7.5% expansion recorded in 2015.

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