Inland waterways: a sustainable and cost-effective alternative for freight transport

The transportation industry is facing increasing pressure to reduce its environmental impact and adopt more sustainable practices. A recent workshop organised by the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine (CCNR) explored the cost considerations of shifting freight to inland waterways.

While cost remains an important factor for shippers, the workshop highlighted that it should be evaluated alongside other factors such as cargo volume, infrastructure investments, operational costs, environmental benefits, and regulatory compliance.

During his presentation, ESC Secretary General Godfried Smit explained  that an increasing number of shippers is highly motivated for greening their supply chain. This is not only the result of global and European policies but is also based on their own motivation, increase of brand value, and pressure of their supply chain partners and clients. NGOs monitor the behavior of especially multi-national companies.

Inland waterways offer a distinct advantage over the road haulage industry in terms of emission levels. “However, there remains a challenge to address particulate matter emissions,  pointed Godfried Smit, “particularly from older vessels. The innovation of the fleet towards even greater sustainability is sometimes hindered by the fragmented ownership structure, with many ships belonging to individual skippers. This necessitates a broader discussion involving financial institutions, governments, and transport users. Unlike the road haulage sector, inland waterways cannot fully shoulder the costs of innovation. Therefore, the Commission should address this issue by exploring solutions such as expanding the state aid framework or using funding from an innovation fund.”

Engineers are leveraging renewable energy and alternative power sources to help make barge towboats and barges themselves more sustainable. For example, solar-powered barges are being used to clean up the world’s waterways, both inland and coastal. Organisations are also developing hybrid gas-electric barges to make their transportation fleets more sustainable. There are even hydrogen-powered barges in the works as the world looks to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

When shifting from road to barge transportation, it’s crucial for shippers to gain a comprehensive understanding of the total costs involved. Commercial partners, along with inland waterway information (not promotion) centers, can play a significant role in providing this clarity. This cost breakdown should reflect the actual investments required and any additional expenses associated with terminal transshipment. Investments are not solely the shipper’s responsibility; barge operators may also need to invest in implementing new sustainable practices. For example, if a shipper requests green transportation, barge operators may need to invest in new ships. Shippers should recognise, in such instances, that longer-term contracts are essential to guarantee innovation and secure financing from the financial sector.

Digitization serves as an enabler for cost reduction. By facilitating information exchange between ships, terminals, haulers, and receivers, digitization streamlines the supply chain, reducing waiting times. This improved efficiency translates into cost savings.

ESC encourages shippers, policymakers, and transport stakeholders to work together to promote the use of inland waterway transport. This can be achieved by: investing in inland waterway infrastructure, developing innovative barge transport solutions, and raising awareness of the benefits of inland waterway transport.