Locked Out Disrepair Forces Closure of Vital Shipping Lane

The Kiel Canal, one of Europe's most vital shipping lanes, was shut down this week when two neglected locks broke down. The closure threatens to cause major disruption to shipping in Northern Europe, but Germany's Transport Ministry has promised rapid repairs.
Repair work has begun on two broken locks that are part of a shortcut between the North and Baltic Seas that reduces ships' roundtrip travel distance by some 900 kilometers.

Repair work has begun on two broken locks that are part of a shortcut between the North and Baltic Seas that reduces ships' roundtrip travel distance by some 900 kilometers.

Foto: Axel Heimken/ dpa

It's the world's most heavily trafficked man-made shipping lane, but since Wednesday few ships have been seen on the 100-kilometer (62-mile) long Kiel Canal, which cuts through the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein to form a roughly 450-kilometer shortcut between the North and Baltic Seas.

Although the canal is under the jurisdiction of the federal government, it has been the subject of financial disputes for years between Berlin and the state. Last year, the German government even reduced the money available for maintaining the canal from €60 million ($78 million) to just €11 million, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported Friday. Years of neglect have led some of the locks on the canal to fall into such disrepair that it had to be closed on Wednesday to most ship traffic.

As the Süddeutsche noted, the shipping lane was planned during the 19th century under Kaiser Wilhelm in order to ensure that ships "could get from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea without having to pass by Danish canons." The canal first opened in 1895, and, with relations far friendlier today, it forms a vital link for trade within the European Union and to Russia.

35,000 Passages a Year

It is also of enormous importance to Hamburg, Europe's second-largest port behind Rotterdam. One out of three container ships that is processed in the city travels through the Kiel Canal as it continues on to the Baltic states and Russia.

State politicians have slammed German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer for not taking action sooner. "We're making ourselves the laughing stock of the world," Schleswig-Holstein Economics Minister Reinhard Meyer said.

Officials at the Transport Ministry have also snapped back, noting that it took many years for a canal to fall into such disrepair. However, on Friday, Ramsauer said that a massive amount of effort would be put into repairing the locks over the next two weeks in order to "prevent something worse, namely, a six-month blockage." He also said €300 million would be invested in the canal as part of a broader German program for rapidly expanding critical infrastructure elements."

The two large locks that are closed are located in Brunsbüttel, where the canal meets the North Sea at its western end. Since Wednesday, only ships of a length of 125 meters (410 feet) or less, 20.5 meters in width and a depth of maximum of 6.5 meters can still navigate the canal. Given that most modern container ships plying the world's waters start at around 294 meters in length, that excludes most traffic. Last year alone, around 35,000 ships (including smaller ones) and 104 million metric tons of goods made the passage through the canal, according to German news agency DPA.

Officials hope to reopen the canal to larger ships again in two weeks. In the meantime, large container ships, the heart of the local economy in Hamburg, will have to make an expensive, 450-kilometer detour through Skagerak, Denmark. The Süddeutsche Zeitung estimates it will cost a shipping company €70,000 more for each ship than it would to travel through the canal.

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