IWT infrastructure


Source: Trends & Transport

Inland Waterway Transport

Inland waterway transport (IWT) concerns freight transport on water that is not categorised as ‘sea’, such as on canals, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. Inland ships operate in sheltered waters with favourable wave and wind conditions. They have a relatively light construction, a low freeboard and a lower dynamic stability than seagoing vessels. This makes them more cost effective than seagoing ships of similar size. However, inland ships also operate under conditions with substantial constraints in water depth, air draft, width and length.

I graduated twice on an innovative IWT solution, worked as IWT specialist for Royal Haskoning, completed a PhD on inland water transport, worked as researcher/lecturer in the field of IWT at the Delft University of Technology, and I currently work as strategic advisor for the Mercurius Shipping Group, and as policy advisor on knowledge development for Royal BLN-Schuttevaer, the largest branch organisation for inland shipping in the Netherlands.

Transport modelling

IWT is a difficult subject to deal within freight transport models. IWT flows are usually modelled by a few reference ships with a certain capacity (measured in tons) for which fixed generalised cost levels per tonne kilometre are assumed. The size of the applied reference ships is usually defined according to the dimensions of the applicable waterway class (e.g. according to CEMT 1992 classification). In reality different hights and air drafts are encountered on waterways of a similar class. On rivers the water levels also vary with the discharge, and the ship's draft and air draft are a function of the weight of the cargo loaded. The ship's capacity is also constrained by the stability of the ship, which is not yet taken into account in existing freight models. Freight models can be improved by taking the actual ship and waterway characteristics into account. Dr. R. Hekkenberg (see his dissertation) and I have developed (and are still working on) parametric models for estimating ship characteristics. These models can be used in combination with GIS data and information on actual water levels to improve IWT in freight modelling. We aim to keep the models simple, using only basic input parameters like length, beam, draft, and sailing regime to assess the loading capacity and estimate the costs and fuel consumption.

Competing supply chains


Source: Trends & Transport

Assessing cost competitiveness

When developing inland waterway transport solutions, the entire supply chain for IWT has to be competitive with the supply chain for direct road and intermodal rail transport. To assess the feasibility of waterborne transport solutions one needs to assess the alternative options as well. This requires insight in the modelling of road and rail transport, for which I have developed a parametric cost model.

In the Netherlands inland container ships are already operated at short distances going down to just a few kilometres within the seaports. However, the competitiveness of IWT services depends on the size of ships and the available cargo. Inland container transport is most difficult for continental 45 foot containers between two inland ports.

Container crane barge operations


Source: Mercurius Shipping Group

Innovative inland waterway solutions

During my graduation projects and in my work for the Mercurius Shipping Group I have gained substantial experience with developing innovative inland waterway transport solutions. My first graduation project was related to an innovative ship for distribution of pallets, using a self-loading and unloading ship called the River Hopper. I assessed the financial feasibility of the project and helped setting up the logistical services. My second graduation project concerned an innovative container crane vessel, that is able to load and unload full containers with its own gear. The Mercurius Shipping Group operates two crane vessels that are able to lift 30 tonnes at 30 meter distance.

I work as business developer for these ships, so feel free to contact me or MCT Lucassen in case of any questions on hiring the vessels.

At the Mercurius Shipping Group I am also responsible for assessing specific request that need to be tailored, such as ships a low draft, a low air draft, or a special cargo handling system.

Future proof infrastructure planning

Infrastructures are essential to the well-functioning of modern economies, but once in place they are hard to change due to their high capital intensity and long technical lifetime. Hydraulic structures, such as ship locks, weirs, and bridges have a typical design life of 50 to 100 years. Infrastructure investments made today will for a long period affect the characteristics of the IWT system. Infrastructure investments need to be planned carefully in order to avoid suboptimal performance and costly adjustments. Making new infrastructure investments robust against changing user requirements requires insight in long-term trends and anticipated developments of external drivers acting on the system, as well as in the response of the system to these developments and the expected impact of proposed policies.

My dissertation provides the ‘building blocks’ for a new policy evaluation method, that is capable of taking long-term effects on the IWT system into account. It provides a detailed discussion on the functioning of the Dutch IWT system and addresses the anticipated development and impact of external drivers on the system.

A more generic discussion on existing waterway infrastructure worldwide and future needs for IWT infrastructure is provided in Chapter 5 of the book, Inland Waterway Transport, Challenges and prospects. This is the only English introduction to IWT that I know.

Total transport performance in EU28


Source: own compilation based on multiple reports with data from European Commission, the OECD, and the UNECE.

Total IWT performance in EU28


Source: own compilation based on multiple reports with data from European Commission, the OECD, and the UNECE.

Market developments

Over the past 50 years IWT has only shown a moderate growth in the European Union, which mainly took place in the period 1990 and 2010 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that substantially affected freight flows to Central European countries (shift from rail towards other modes in Eastern Europe and a shift of cargo from Black Sea ports to West European ports).

Present developments in IWT are presented on a quarterly basis in the market observation report of the CCNR, for which I conduct the review on behalf of Royal BLN-Schuttevaer and ESO.

Future developments can be related to the drivers of the about 50 years lasting Kondratieff waves in the global economy (see page on trends). As a result of the transition in energy and raw material use, I expect the following developments:

  • Inevitable decline in shipment of fossil coal and oil products;
  • Gradual reduction of coal in iron production (due to shift from blast furnace to acr furnace in iron smelting);
  • Gradual reduction of iron ore in steel production as a result of increased use of recycled scrap material.

These developments may also result in:

  • Increase in transport of bio-fuels and bio-based half fabricates;
  • Development of synthetic fuels and synthetic base materials;
  • Increase transport of recycled materials including scrap.

These developments could result in an increased focus on smaller transport volumes to regional destinations, which result in a possible revival of transport on smaller Class III and Class IV waterways.

A more regional focus can also be expected from the sustainability and reverse globalisation movements (i.e. from hyper globalisation back to more sustainable kind of globalisation), which together with a declining population growth, a declining growth of labour productivity and an increasing level of inequality puts pressure on international trade and transport and affects future container throughput.

These expectations tie together with the outcome of the PORT METATRENDS study that I conducted for the port of Rotterdam (see also pages on trends and ports).

Optimal waterway dimensions

The West European IWT infrastructure has been developed by the construction of various canals since the 19th century. The size of the inland ships followed the available canal dimensions. The European waterways are classified according to CEMT 1992. The corresponding dimensions are mostly stemming from before the introduction of the container. Initially, when the first containers were shipped by barge, the available height underneath the bridges turned out to be just sufficient for (partly) loaded standard 20 or 40 foot deep-sea containers. The width also turned out to be just sufficient to load four containers next to each other in the holds of a standard Rhine barge. For this reason, there was no need to make costly adjustments to the inland waterways. Nowadays, however, use is increasingly made of higher so called high cube and wider so called pallet wide containers, as well as of longer-, wider-, and higher continental high cube pallet wide 45 foot containers. The present waterway classification is not in line with the requirements for cost effective transport of these continental containers.

I provide guidance on optimal waterway dimensions in my dissertation and in an advice report to a PAINC InCom working group 179.

Effect of extreme low water levels

Low water at St. Goarshausen just downstream of the Lorelay


Source: Marion Halft (2018) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Sankt_Goarshause n_ Niedrigwasser_2018.jpg. Figure is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Climate change

Climate change increases the number of extreme weather events which creates the following issues with IWT:

  • Low precipitation levels in combination with high evaporation levels resulting in exceptionally low river discharge volumes and low water levels;

  • High precipitation levels resulting in exceptionally high river discharge volumes and high water levels;

  • Strong winds that restrict inland ship operations and raises sea water level if they are directed onshore;

  • Extreme cold weather conditions related to ice and snow.

Climate change also causes sea level rise, that affects water depth, bridge height and frequency of closure of waterway barriers due to storms in river deltas.

I conducted substantial research on the effect of climate change in my dissertation. I am currently involved in research on effects of climate change for Royal BLN-Schuttevaer, where I prepared a study on effect of year 2018 draught on water levels at Dutch part of the Rhine and review an outsourced study on the economic impact of the year 2018 low water periods for the shipping sector, shippers, and the economy. In addition, I act as a supervisor for a PhD student on Climate Change and Inland Navigation. Finally, I am also working on a scientific paper for estimating the impact of low water on the capacity of inland ships, for which we are now addressing reviewer comments.