Thursday, January 28, 2010

Does River Daugava Waterway Make Any Sense?

Some water transport enthusiasts in Latvia have lately raised idea using river Daugava as inland waterway following the canal development trend in Western Europe. Daugava was an important trade route starting from Middle Ages to 1860ies - when an extensive railway network was built. The first goal of the project I remember was connecting the Baltic Sea with the Black sea; now - as I understand form Mr. Uldis Pumpurs (sorry – in Latvian only) – the idea is to connect Vitebsk region in Belarus with Riga port. Initially I was very skeptical about this vision but doing a little research gave a little more credit for the project.  

Finding the Freight
Vitebsk region is the flagship of Belarusian export and – according to some sources – accounts for 68% of nation’s foreign trade. Petrol, electricity, sewing machines, TV sets, bricks, clothing, footwear, food and other goods are produced in the region. Water transport is very cheap, has big capacity and is rather slow. The main candidates for using boats are: timber, peat, construction materials and – already existing industry output – clothing, carpets, shoes and electronic devices. But here we come to a dead end – in Europe we can find territories already connected to ports and with resources of timber, peat and production if construction materials. Belarus is a country that tends to export goods with added value and smaller volume not raw materials. Maybe it is possible that the waterway could depend on manufacturing output at the beginning (less sensitive to transport costs) and gradually induce timber cutting, peat extraction, brick production and other freight that is very sensitive on transport costs.

New Structures Needed
Two big technical problems exist in this project. First – no possibilities for vessels to cross the three existing dams of power plants in Latvia. This can be solved by building locks or some kind of boat elevator. Second - and the biggest – Daugava upon Jēkabpils are shallow. The technical specifications and the corresponding depth are still unknown, but it is clear that rising river level or deepening the channel is required. Upstream Daugavpils is located nature park Daugavas loki – a scenic and environmentally valuable area. A solution that do not effect the park is mandatory (bypass canal for instance).
Most of canals in Europe were built more than a century ago using cheap labor, state funding and little estate costs. In case of proposed Daugava waterway the capital costs would be paid by the users – and I doubt that vessel transport will have significantly lower costs than rail or road transport. Current estimate of the total construction costs is €2 billion. (Cost of LGV Est 400km high speed line is about €4 billion) The length of Daugava from Vitebsk to Riga is about 570km, 420 km in a straight line.

The White Elephant in Existing System
Transport systems in Latvia and Belarus are road and rail not water based because the Industrial Revolution here came when railways were considered more progressive than inland waterways. In Western Europe these systems where introduced and developed simultaneously – and used till nowadays. Countries like France on Germany are improving their canal networks just because they have them. The same is why US do not build high-speed railways – because they do not have a good service of regular rail and all movements are done using other modes of transport.
Water transport would loose attractiveness if one extra reloading is required so the factories must be located right next to the river. Where they are now? Of course near railways. This is a very big block for the project – virtually all of the Daugava waterway costumers must be induced; I do not see any reason why existing factories would relocate themselves or ad one more reloading at local boat station on their delivery route.

I have to come to a conclusion that this project is heading to nowhere. I see almost no existing costumers. In long term Daugava waterway would create some depending industries and traffic but until then the project would be a financial failure. More welome are investments in existing railway system.

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