Friday, May 27, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Once Proud River Fleet Near Collapse

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 27 – Russia’s river fleet on which Moscow in the past has relied to move bulk cargo given the shortage of reliable highways and rail lines is near a state of collapse, threatening the country’s economy and, because of the ecological problems its aging ships present, ability to export many things to European markets.

The Russian Federation has more than 100,000 kilometers of internal waterways deep enough for barge and other shipping traffic, but, Vladimir Rechmensky writes in this week’s “Argumenty nedeli,” the use of this network over the last 20 years has only fallen” and now involves less than two percent of all bulk transport (

According to the calculations of the Volga State Academy of Water Transport, shipping bulk cargo by water is 30 to 40 percent cheaper than moving the same amount by railway or highway, but because the amount now being carried is so small a percentage, Rechmensky says, “globally thinking manager-bureaucrats are not turning their attention” to the rivers.

Russia’s river fleet has always faced problems, experts say, because “in the best case,” the rivers are open for traffic only five months a year, meaning that they must make a profit for the entire year based on less than half a year’s operation. In addition, fuel costs have risen dramatically, and the lack of dredging has reduced the size of the available water network.

Because so little new money is going into this sector, Rechmensky continues, most of the ships are not equipped with contemporary geo-positioning systems. Instead of using GLONASS and GPS, as most other shippers now do, Russian captains are forced to navigate using maps which are updated only “once every three years,” a situation that can lead to accidents.

According to academic experts, the “Argumenty nedeli” journalist says, “at present, the state of the water arteries of the country is at the level it was at in the 1940s and 1950s. [They] and those working in this sector look with tears in their eyes at the step by step destruction of a system that was at one time capable of work.”

Except for yachts and high-end tourist vessels, the Russian river transport system is attracting ever less interest and support, and as a result, “the aging of port and hydro-technical arrangements and the river fleet itself is exceeding the rate of its rebuilding,” with many ships now beyond their projected lifespan and most “older than 30 years.”

With enough funding, these aging ships could be kept operational for several more decades, Rechmensky says, giving as an example a ship in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which was launched in 1913. But if that is the case for domestic shipping, it is not sufficient when those barges try to carry goods to European ports.

Older ships and barges, Rechmensky points out, “do not correspond to the demands of ecological security” that European countries make and consequently they are not welcome in European ports, limiting the ability of Russia to export bulk cargoes in the most cost-efficient way.

To bring Russia’s river fleet up to international standards, the country would have to replace more than 80 percent of its vessels, some 8000 in all. Given current investment patterns, that is unlikely to happen, and as a result, Russia’s river fleet is “slowly but truly degrading” to the detriment of the country.

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