Barge sector pins hopes on Belgium

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Series Details Vol.7, No.21, 24.5.01, p17
Publication Date 24/05/2001
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Date: 24/05/01

By Bruce Barnard

Inland shipping is looking to the forthcoming Belgian presidency of the EU to rescue it from Europe's transport ghetto.

Barges provide the most efficient, environmentally friendly and pan-European transport but are poor cousins to trucks and trains among policy makers in EU capitals and the European Commission.

The industry's low profile reflects the fact that it is focused in five of the EU's 15 member states and was until fairly recently dominated by small-owner operators.

The Commission has operated scrap-and-build programmes to curb overcapacity but its involvement has been very limited compared with its relationship with other sectors, notably air transport and railways.

Now the industry has joined forces to lobby Brussels for a better deal.

"We are seeking the same treatment as that given to the road and rail sectors," said Hilde Bollen, president of Inland Navigation Europe, the industry's new lobbying group that plans to meet Commission officials next month.

Industry leaders are hopeful they are about to get recognition in Brussels - the Commission supported establishment of Inland Navigation Europe in October. Meanwhile, the Belgian presidency is expected to produce a major policy statement on inland shipping, possibly including the establishment of an EU register.

Union policy makers despairing at rail's inability to attract freight off Europe's gridlocked road system are finally waking up to inland shipping's achievements and its potential.

Each year barges haul around 425 million tonnes of cargo on Europe's 20,000 kilometres of inland waterways, which stretch from the northern ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg to the Black Sea.

Inland shipping has become an integral part of Europe's transport chain, boasting increasingly sophisticated vessels able to carry hundreds of containers that travel in convoys of six pushed by a single powerful tug.

Barges have established a commanding position on the Rhine container market, hauling more than 1.2-million boxes a year on the 850-kilometre stretch between Rotterdam and Basel and more than 850,000 between Rotterdam and Antwerp - mostly at the expense of trucks.

Barges are much cheaper than truck or rail and the longer transit time is no longer a major problem as the big operators run shuttle services on the Rhine to fit in with their customers 'just in time' schedules. Their major attraction to policy makers is that unlike road and rail, there is plenty of spare capacity.

Inland shipping will, however, be unable to replicate its success on the Rhine on other routes without substantial investments to deepen waterways and heighten low bridges.

That is why the industry is pinning its hopes on a barge-friendly Belgian presidency.

Inland shipping is looking to the forthcoming Belgian presidency of the EU to rescue it from Europe's transport ghetto.

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