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River navigation hurdles stymie Russian OOG transport
Navigability is increasingly problematic throughout key stretches of Russia’s river systems, hamstringing the transport of overweight and out-of-gauge (OOG) cargo.
While river transport accounts for only about 5 percent of all Russian freight movements, that percentage jumps seasonally to 30-50 percent for OOG cargo. Russia’s harsh winters mean cargo can only move on the rivers during ice-free months.
Under normal conditions, Russia’s river systems work well for moving OOG cargo to inland industrial centers, but the rivers’ health has declined since the collapse of the USSR. With little funding spent on upkeep such as dredging, some rivers have disappeared completely. Additionally, there is little control of industrial and agricultural enterprises that divert water without restoration.
Russia’s inland waterways total roughly 101,000 km (62,758 miles), among the world’s lengthiest. As Russia has recovered from the financial crisis, industrial and infrastructure investment has also recovered, necessitating increased deliveries of oversized cargo. Major projects include the $13 billion Amur Gas Processing Plant in the country’s Amur region; the Novokuibyshevsk refinery expansion in the Samara region; and the $3.8 billion Novovoronezh nuclear power plant in Voronezh Oblast.
But worsening river conditions are complicating cargo delivery for such projects. Konstantin Grinevich, general director of Russian project forwarder Glogos Project, said that the increasing shallowness of Russia’s rivers is “one of the consequences of the overall degradation of river infrastructure in the country. This poses a threat to the entire Russian industry of super-heavy cargo transportations, as river transport has always had a strategic importance for them.” According to Glogos’s route analysis, the issue is most pressing for Russia’s European and easternmost regions.
River depths have decreased significantly in recent years and many tributaries that were navigable 10 to 15 years ago are no longer passable at all or can only be navigated during high water. Thus, virtually every river-borne transport project requires preliminary work that includes dredging.
The Zeya River, a northern tributary of the Amur River, was deepened by Combi Lift and its Russian partners last year prior to the delivery of oversized cargo to the construction site of the Amur Gas Processing Plant in Russia’s Far East. Similar dredging deepened the Chapaevka River, a tributary of the Volga, to allow for the delivery of super-heavy cargo to the site of the Novokuibyshevsk refinery expansion. Regular dredging is also required on the Don River to keep the berth at the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant clear. Currently, only shallow-draft barges can reach the site.
Russian shippers and the transport companies that specialize in super-heavy cargo transport are searching for solutions, and Grinevich said it may be necessary to create a separate cost item for river dredging during super-heavy cargo deliveries.
Most shippers are not ready to shift their OOG cargo to road or rail, despite river transport issues, because in Russia, there are extensive restrictions on weight, size, and dimensions of cargo that can be moved via these modes. Industry members say growth in road transport is prevented by bureaucratic hurdles that make obtaining permits to move heavy or OOG cargo on Russian roads very difficult, while shortages of OOG platforms and transporters constrict rail transport.
Russian rail carriers do hope to attract more OOG cargo, however. “In recent years, there has been a steady growth trend in regard to the volume of oversized cargo transported by rail transport in Russia,” said Anton Gorbunov, director of freight forwarding with RZD Logistics, a subsidiary of the Russian railway monopoly RZD. “And we are talking not only about domestic shipments. At the end of 2018, we noted that the number of projects for the delivery of oversized cargo from China significantly increased. Orders for such shipments come mainly from large industrial enterprises of Russia. This trend will continue to be observed in the coming years, given the advantages that are guaranteed by rail transport: complete safety, independence from weather conditions, and, most importantly, short delivery times as opposed to river transport. In addition, most enterprises have their own access roads, which makes possible door-to-door transportations.”