Elbe dredging delay could impact handling

03 Mar 2017

Big box ships still face uncertain future in Hamburg

Big box ships still face uncertain future in Hamburg

Controversial dredging of the Elbe River between Hamburg and the North Sea is now likely to be delayed by a further two years and could impact on handling, following a court ruling that current plans must be amended.

The Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig declared that long-planned Elbe deepening along the 130 kms stretch between Germany’s biggest seaport and the North Sea could go ahead in principle, but only after revisions and improvements had been incorporated into plans proposed by the city-state of Hamburg. Industry experts now expect those revisions to take two years or longer to implement – assuming that environmentalists, who have opposed deepening all along, don’t lodge further appeals.

The Elbe is one of Germany’s busiest waterways and the Hamburg-North Sea stretch is crucial for shipping to and from Hamburg, 80 kms inland. It is the country’s biggest universal seaport and Europe’s third biggest port after Rotterdam and Antwerp.

For years Hamburg has pushed for further Elbe deepening to cope with a container shipping boom and to allow ever bigger box ships to access its handling facilities. Without it the port fears major handling losses as big-vessel liner shipping companies move to other ports.

 After the latest court decision was announced, one prominent local politician Andre Trepoli was quoted as saying he knew of two shipping concerns, together handling about half a million TEUs, who were now considering moving to the Rotterdam range.

Rival Bremerhaven and the new Jade Weser Port in Wilhelmshaven are others who could also benefit if Hamburg does not provide access for ever bigger box ships. Hamburg turnover last year rose by just 0.3% to138.2 million tons while container handling rose 1% to 8.9 million TEUs – well below the 10 million TEUs handled a decade ago. Some officials now believe the further delay in Elbe dredging will  contribute to even further cargo decline. 

Hamburg wants to provide access independent of tidal conditions for big ships drawing 13.5m and for mega container vessels of 14.5m draught using the waterway at high tide. At the same time plans are to create improved conditions for incoming and outgoing vessels to pass each other.

Some 38.5 million cubic metres of dredged material are expected to be removed. Most of this will be used to create underwater walls to prevent the sanding up of shipping channels in the Elbe Estuary but some 12 million m3 will be tipped in the estuary.

Estimates put continuously rising costs of the latest dredging at well over €600 million with Berlin paying around €400 million. When the Elbe was last deepened in 2000  to allow tide-independent passage for ships drawing 12.5m and tide-dependent movement for those drawing 13.5m, the cost was DM220 million.

By Tom Todd

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