Risky Renovations Kiel Canal Overhaul Threatens Hamburg Port

The Kiel Canal has long kept the Port of Hamburg alive, providing Germany's biggest port with a direct link to countries further east. Now, though, a massive overhaul of the waterway could prompt shipowners to switch to rival terminals.

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Germany doesn't owe much to its last kaiser, especially since Wilhelm II led the country into political isolation and a disastrous world war.

A vestige of his rule, from which Germany still benefits today, is a piece of infrastructure about 100 kilometers (62 miles) long. Originally named after the monarch's grandfather and built to make the German navy more maneuverable, the Kiel Canal has since become a busy commercial route. Some 34,879 ships passed through the canal last year, more than through the Panama and Suez canals combined.

But captains and shipowners don't feel particularly romantic about the fact that the world's most heavily trafficked man-made waterway is a dinosaur in technological terms and has a museum-like aura. At the pace of modern-day transport logistics, there is no time to admire the ornate brick lock basins and riveted gates. In fact, there isn't even enough time to turn off the propellers.

The propellers pose a serious problem for the locks. Even in neutral with angled blades, they produce more thrust than the gates can accommodate. The steel gates run on rails at the bottom of the canal, like rail cars. They are constantly being pushed to the side during the closing process. "The system is suffering greatly," says Jens Anke, a 39-year-old civil engineer is in charge of lock maintenance in the Holtenau district of the port city of Kiel, where the eastern end of the canal opens up onto the Baltic Sea.

Anke is standing on the edge of the large north basin, swearing in a broad Saxon accent. The gate is slowly closing behind a container ship owned by the Danish shipping company Maersk. The propeller is turning slowly, and the water is foaming and bubbling like a whirlpool.

Modern cargo ships have a complex propulsion system. Stopping and restarting the propeller can take half an hour, which is why the propellers are kept running during locking. The gates, which open and close day and night, are suffering as a result.

It's as if Anke had to maintain a car built in 1914 that is used as a taxi around the clock and needs to be kept in constant working order. But Anke is glad that he manages the gates in Kiel. The ones in Brunsbüttel are in much worse shape.

Beyond 'Worn Out'

Brunsbüttel is at the other, eastern end of the Kiel Canal, where the Elbe River flows into the North Sea. The water there is cloudy with sediment, high and low tide create tremendous currents, and silt penetrates into the mechanical parts of the gates. Ship propellers make matters worse, and the gates -- or what's left of them -- are under even more stress than in Kiel.

The large lock in Brunsbüttel failed completely on March 6. Two gates were stuck, the inner gate of the south basin and the outer gate of the north basin. What happened next had not even occurred during the two world wars: The canal remained closed to large ships for an entire week. When German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer arrived at the scene, he concluded that the canal was being "worn out."

Given the condition of the locks, Ramsauer's words sounded almost cynical. The gates had already become derailed months earlier, and the rails at the bottom of the canal could no longer be secured in the broken foundation. To fix the problem, the canal operators simply removed the wheels and allowed the gates to slide along the bare canal floor on wooden skids.

To appreciate just how ridiculous the minister's conclusion -- that the equipment was being "worn out" -- sounded, one could imagine someone saying the same thing about a truck dragging a wheel-less trailer along the highway on nothing but its frame.

As a federal waterway, the Kiel Canal falls under Ramsauer's jurisdiction, which makes Europe's largest industrialized nation look like a basket case when it comes to transportation policy. Germany spends billions to place the main train station in Stuttgart underground and to connect the eastern cities of Erfurt and Ebensfeld with a new ICE rail line, while the lock gates in the country's most important canal scrape along on wooden skids.

'The Intercity of Sea Freight'

A woman who works in an attractive brick building in Hamburg's warehouse district, 80 kilometers up the Elbe River from Brunsbüttel, explains how important the Kiel Canal is for Germany. As the head of Port of Hamburg Marketing, Claudia Roller is the most senior representative of the interests of Germany's largest seaport and Europe's second-largest after Rotterdam. "Hamburg," she says, "depends on a reliable Kiel Canal."

A large monitor on the wall depicts a map and the flows of goods. One of the trump cards of Hamburg's port is that it specializes in a type of ship called a "feeder." The vessel, about 200 meters (656 feet) long, can hold close to 2,000 standard containers, or about an eighth of the cargo carried by the largest ships that put into the harbor.

Feeders, which primarily serve the Baltic Sea region, travel more frequently than giant freighters. Several of these ships sail from Hamburg to some countries on a daily basis. "It's the Intercity of sea freight," says Roller, "but it only works if the Kiel Canal is in service."

The feeders only fit through the canal by a hair's breath. But, by using it, they shave more than 600 kilometers off the route into the Baltic Sea, bound for countries such as Poland, Russia and Finland. This can easily save 20 hours in travel time and up to €20,000 ($26,000) in fuel costs. Hamburg is the sea freight hub to the Baltic Sea region, and almost a quarter of the freight transshipped in Hamburg reaches or leaves the port through the Kiel Canal.

But since the gates were shut down at the Elbe dike in Brunsbüttel, port operators have become concerned that if the canal is no longer seen as reliable, shipowners could shift to longer routes around Denmark, switch to larger ships and, most of all, bypass Hamburg altogether. That's because the Dutch ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are more suitable as hubs for the Denmark route. "There is a risk that Hamburg's position will be weakened," says Roller.

If that happened, Ramsauer would be the transportation minister who presided over the loss of an important lifeline for Hamburg's port. And it wouldn't even be his fault. In fact, Hamburg port lobbyist Roller praises the native Bavarian as "the first transportation minister in a long time who truly champions Germany's seaports."

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