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European Commission Proposes Shifting More Freight from Roads to Waterways

The EU25 has more than 35,000 kilometers of inland waterways used for transport. Click to enlarge.

The European Commission has proposed a seven-year plan to shift a greater percentage of freight traffic off the highways and onto the inland waterways in Europe.

Called NAIADES—Navigation And Inland Waterway Action and Development in Europe—(with a nod to the fresh water nymphs of the same name in Greek mythology) the action plan combines legislative and policy devices with support and funding programs and focuses on five interdependent strategic areas:

  1. Creating favorable conditions for services and attracting new markets;

  2. Stimulating fleet modernization and innovation, especially with an eye toward environmental and energy performance;

  3. Attracting new workforce and increasing investment in human capital;

  4. Promoting Inland Waterway Transport (IWT) as a successful business partner through a promotional network; and

  5. Providing an adequate inland waterway infrastructure.

As a result of growing overseas trade and EU enlargement towards Central and Eastern Europe, freight transport volumes in Europe are expected to increase by one third until 2015. Compared to the steady growth of IWT in Western Europe, on the Danube River and other waterways of Central and Eastern Europe, the share of IWT is still significantly smaller.

New industrial activities in new Member States and candidate countries are generating demand for containerized transport on a large scale, but this is currently being captured by the road transport sector. At present only 7 to 10% of the Danube’s maximum capacity is actually used.

Given the present pattern of reliance on road transport, congestion and pollution will continue to rise, the cost of which are expected to double to 1% of Europe’s annual GDP by 2010.

With a fleet of 11,000 vessels and a capacity equalling 10,000 trains or 440,000 trucks, inland waterways can make transport in Europe more efficient, reliable and environmental friendly. Europe cannot afford to leave that potential untapped.

—Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of transport

According to Commission documents, inland water transport has been shown to be the most environmentally friendly transport mode with total external costs currently calculated at €10 per 1,000 tonne-kilometers (by comparison: €35 for road and €15 for rail transport) If inland navigation cargoes were carried by road, emissions to air in Europe would be at least 10% higher.

Policy, funding and market frameworks aside, NAIADES faces some challenges specifically in the modernization of the transport vessels—self-propelled dry cargo and tank vessels, push boats, tugs and barges.

Approximately 12,500 motorized units are registered in the EU-25, about 95% of them being registered either in The Netherlands (accounting for 50% of the EU fleet), Germany, Belgium or France.

The fuel consumption of these ships is relatively low compared to other modes of transport, according to the Commission staff. However, ongoing improvements in low-emissions fuels and efficient on-highway engines are outpacing those of the inland waterway sector.

Furthermore, the emissions performance of vessels at dock (not to mention the off-road cargo-handling equipment) can contribute significantly to pollution in the surrounding area, as research around the Port of Los Angeles has most recently shown. (Earlier post.)

This also correlates with the gradual ageing of the European fleet. For instance, 50% of the active Dutch fleet was built before 1960, and the majority of engines currently in use was built before 1980.

The Commission is highlighting a number of initial areas for focus:

  • Carbon dioxide. Developing and applying improved propulsion mechanisms and engines, optimizing hull design and improving sailing behavior can reduce fuel consumption and thus CO2 emissions. The EC staff also notes the importance of information technology applied to navigation and sailing behavior that can find optimal speeds based on waterway conditions.

  • Sulfur dioxide. Lower-sulfur fuels, combined with more modern engines, will reduce the emission of sulfur dioxide. The present sulfur limit for marine fuel is 0.2% (2,000 ppm). EC Directive 99/32 mandates the use of lower sulfur marine fuel (less than 0.1%—1,000 ppm) for all inland vessels from 2010, unless approved abatement technologies are used to reduce emissions to the same level.

  • Oxides of nitrogen. NOx emissions can be reduced by engine management technologies during combustion, particularly using water injection or humid air, or by exhaust aftertreatments. A first-stage emission standard for NOx, hydrocarbons (HC) and particulate matter (PM10) has been in force on the Rhine since 2002. A second-stage standard will be applicable on all Community inland waterways starting in 2007.

  • Particulate Matter. Techniques specifically for reducing PM emissions such as particulate traps are used in other transport sectors, and could in principle be applied to inland vessels.

  • Bilge water. A specific environmental issue regarding inland navigation is the leakage of oil and grease (bilge water). Although modern propeller shaft seals are completely water tight, about 70% of all barges still have seals that leak water into the bilge.

The Commission acknowledges that IWT emissions standards will have to be refined in an ongoing process.

The Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine (CCNR) and the European Union have already introduced emissions standards for consideration. The EC notes that additional reduction of sulfur in marine diesel may be required.

Other proposed actions related to improving the environmental profile of IWT include:

  • Funding for R&D and demonstration projects regarding eco-efficient engines, hull design and propeller design;

  • Funding for the introduction of catalytic converters, SJAC and other filtering techniques;

  • Making bilge water and waste collection services (as offered along the Rhine) available throughout Europe;

  • Developing non-carbon fuels and zero-emissions engines;

  • Exploiting the use of biodiesel, especially biodiesel;

  • Funding for hydrogen research oriented toward IWT transport vessels.




Hopefully as the EU shifts to water-based freight transport, the result will be a tremendous turn-over of operating vessels, so that most freight is being hauled by fuel effficient, environmentall sound barges.

I wonder how big-rigs, freight trains, and river-based ships compare [i]solely[/i] on fuel efficiency. Sure they use different fuels, but how much energy does it take each of the vehicles to move 1,000,000 kg a distance of 1,000 km, for example? Additionally, a (perhaps minor, perhaps not) variable is that the three methods have different paths, and so the kms travelled is different for all three (4 if you include air). Also, upriver and downriver should have different fuel costs I would think.

Interesting stuff.


Unfortunately, a National geographic article alluded to a German economic study, saying that the Rhine-Danube Canal was a money-loser porkbarrel, less competive and slower than simply sailing a freighter from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Our supposedly vital Mississippi system is no better, due to the vast expense of the locks and levies, and the environmental damage to the Louisiana delta and marshlands as far north as the Dakotas. Canals are justified by bulk trade in grains and such, not finished goods, and not even by energy efficiency. As the EU integrates, the distribution of industry and living space will favor railroads, warehouses, and trucks. Only subsidies will justify barge trade, and the lifestyle of entire communities that live on them.


Was it also slower in moving freight from the Ruhr to Budapest?
Bulk trade is greater in weight than finished goods

ps. The Rhine-Danube Canal was build for political reasons and not economic. It helped Eastern Europe to be less dependand on the USSR

Adrian Akau

I am wondering if waterway boats could be set up with large electric motors if the waterways are close to land. I used to ride and electric trolly when I was young; it was hooked up to overhead lines. I know it may sound silly, but if there is any possibility of devising a method of economically connecting boats to electric lines, then energy produced by windpower could be used to transport goods.

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