Industry Insight

A climate-neutral inland waterway fleet by 2030

A look back at more than 213 years of inland waterway shipping history and at the future of one of the most sustainable means of transport

Interview with Thomas Maassen, Managing Director of Rhenus Transport in Duisburg, about the history of the Rhenus Group and Deutsche Binnenreederei.

Having completed the takeover of Deutsche Binnenreederei AG (DBR) in Berlin in the summer of 2020, the Managing Director of Rhenus Transport, Thomas Maassen, believes that there are hardly any more opportunities for expanding business through acquisitions in the inland waterway shipping sector for dry goods in Europe. Maassen, who is also President of the European River Sea Transport Union e.V. (ERSTU) in Berlin, used his discussions with Hans-Wilhelm Dünner to announce that Rhenus has deliberate plans to technically modify the Rhenus and DBR fleets and introduce electric drive systems in order to offer climate-neutral shipping operations by 2030.

Rhenus has roots that go back to the year 1808, when the Stinnes shipping company was founded. For more than 200 years, supplying the steel industry and the power generating sector with mined commodities such as coal and ore as well as transporting building materials comprised the main business activities of the shipping companies that have since become part of Rhenus and operate in the River Rhine area. Rhenus has been one of the pioneers of container transportation from seaports at the estuary of the River Rhine to destinations further inland since the 1960s.

The roots of Deutsche Binnenreederei go back to the year 1949, when all the inland waterway shipping activities in former East Germany were combined within ‘Deutsche Schifffahrts- und Umschlagsbetriebszentrale’ (DSU) in Berlin and it became a state-owned enterprise. The fleet consisting of barges and steam-powered tugs was used on the inland waterways between the Rivers Elbe and Oder. After the enterprise was renamed VEB Deutsche Binnenreederei in 1957, the major focus was on supplying both East and West Berlin with coal and building materials and disposing of building waste. The DBR fleet was completely modernised with 120 motor vessels, 160 push boats and 1,300 push barges during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. DBR was privatised in 1993 and was one of the pioneers of container shipping along the River Elbe and along the northern German canals from 1995 onwards.

The Rhenus Group now has business operations through its own offices and subsidiaries in eleven European countries along the Rivers Seine, Rhine, Main, Danube, Weser, Elbe and Oder and transports a wide range of goods ranging from bulk commodities and break bulk cargo to containers and even heavy-duty items.

Rhenus: From a shipping company along the River Rhine to a global logistics specialist

In 1998, the family-managed RETHMANN Group acquired Rhenus AG, which was founded in 1912 and generated an annual turnover of DM 830 million, and since that time has significantly expanded the business by means of huge investments and the acquisition of other companies. Rhenus SE & Co. KG, which has its headquarters in Holzwickede, is now an international logistics services specialist with a global network that generated a turnover of EUR 5.4 billion with 33,500 employees working at 820 business sites in 2020. Whether using road or rail, river, maritime or air services – the Rhenus Group develops cross-border transport solutions using all these means of transport for a wide variety of sectors, including multimodal transport operations, warehousing, customs clearance and innovative value-added services.

‘Whether we’re operating on rivers or using other means of transport as a logistics specialist – we view ourselves as a partner that’s able to create added value for our customers. We therefore analyse highly complex logistical processes along the supply chain and optimise them by providing individual solutions for procurement, production and distribution,’ says Thomas Maassen, explaining how the Rhenus Group understands its mission. ‘By focusing on digital logistics solutions and our corporate history, which goes back more than 100 years, we’re able to combine traditions and forward-looking thinking: and customers are the major focus of our activities at Rhenus at all times.’

The headquarters of the company’s largest business area, ‘Port Logistics’, are in Duisburg. This location manages all the trimodal logistics with Contargo, commodity logistics with freight forwarding and project logistics, transport logistics with road and rail freight as well as inland waterway shipping and river-maritime shipping operated by Rhenus PartnerShip, in addition to various handling and warehouse activities at seaports and inland waterway ports.

213 years of tradition in inland waterway shipping

Just walk up and down the staircase of the long-established building that houses the Port Logistics headquarters on August-Hirsch-Strasse in Duisburg Ruhrort, and you’ll clearly see that it mirrors the company’s roots dating back more than two centuries. ‘The longest-standing players in the inland waterway shipping sector and port handling operations along the River Rhine have been merged in Rhenus PartnerShip and include the Stinnes shipping company, which was founded in Duisburg in 1808, the Fendel shipping company, which was established in 1875, and Westfälische Transport AG, which was set up in 1897 – as well as Rhenus itself, which is now more than 100 years old,’ Maassen summarises. The history of these companies is documented in historical oil paintings with scenes from the world of inland waterway shipping, in addition to numerous models of ships, ranging from the wooden ‘Ruhraak’ (flat-bottomed vessels), used to transport goods in the early days 200 years ago, to paddle steamers that are more than 150 years old and push boats that are 50 years old and even modern push barge combinations like the RHENUS DUISBURG.

Thanks to the 2015 acquisition of the French company, ‘Compagnie Française de Navigation Rhénane (CFNR)’, which was founded in 1919 and is based in Strasbourg, and its subsidiary, the Serbian inland waterway shipping logistics specialist, CFND, which is based in Belgrade, another long-standing River Rhine shipping company with business activities in the Upper Rhine area and the River Mosel as well as in the Danube region have now become part of the Rhenus Group. Rhenus took over the Czechoslovakian River Elbe shipping company, ČSPL, which was founded in 1922, in 2018 and it has now become part of Rhenus PartnerShip-ČSPL s.r.o., which has its headquarters in Děčín on the upper reaches of the River Elbe.

*Click to enlarge image

‘Overall, we now operate more than 1,100 shipping units, ranging from push barges and motor vessels suitable for canals to large push barge combinations on the River Rhine with a payload capacity of 350 – 12,000 tonnes. The Rhenus Group owns two thirds of the fleet; the remainder are charter vessels, which transport about 40 million tonnes of bulk commodities, heavy break bulk cargo and containers for the Rhenus Group every year,’ Maassen adds. This means that Rhenus is one of the most important companies in the European inland waterway shipping market, and it particularly focuses on dry shipping operations.

DBR complements Rhenus activities in the east and the west

‘When the Rhenus Group took over Deutsche Binnenreederei AG, which was founded in Berlin in 1949, in the summer of 2020, we closed the last gaps on the Central European inland waterway shipping map to the east of the River Elbe, because, by acquiring the company from the Polish OT Group, we also completed the takeover of the fleet of the former Polish state shipping company based in Bydgoszcz and Wrocław,’ Maassen comments. ‘We’re able to centrally manage these vessels and the DBR fleet through the DBR fleet management centre in Berlin. We have qualified inland waterway logistics experts and shipping personnel both in Děčín and in Berlin and Szczecin and they ideally complement our activities across Europe with their regional expertise.’  

‘DBR fits into our activities in the region very well because the Rhenus branches in eastern Germany and along the Polish inland waterways were already DBR’s main customers in the past. DBR’s existing group of customers have also positively welcomed our takeover of the company since having a reliable inland waterway logistics specialist is absolutely essential for many shippers in this region,’ Maassen believes. It goes without saying that Maassen, who travels to Berlin to support DBR’s reorientation process on site twice a month, plans to increase the market share in eastern Germany and Poland through new direct customer contacts.

Sustainable logistics concepts at DBR

After the privatisation of the remainder of the DBR fleet of 1,042 vessels with 570 employees in February 1993 to 22 medium-sized shipping and shipyard companies, Deutsche Binnenreederei ∙ Binnenschifffahrt ∙ Spedition ∙ Logistik GmbH was established with its headquarters in Berlin. The subsidiary ODRA LLOYD was founded in Szczecin and ELBE RHEIN LLOYD in Rotterdam in the autumn of 1993. The core fleet of 350 vessels and large parts of the fleet that had been taken out of service were modernised during the next few years and equipped with new engines and radar units. To safeguard the jobs of the employees, new goods and quantities had to be acquired in the transport markets, which were suffering from the structural changes required in the economy of the former East Germany.

‘Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland GmbH’ (the German company responsible for separating and recycling waste) was founded in 1990 and launched its dual disposal system for packaging waste. As there was no well-functioning recycling and recovery system for plastic waste, the collection points established across Germany rapidly became full to capacity and an urgent search for interim storage facilities began. DBR offered its mothballed fleet of more than 600 vessels for this purpose and was able to implement its first logistics concept comprising various means of transport with the Bonn-based disposal company; this involved picking up the bundled waste and transporting it to the collection points using trucks, transporting it to the nearest inland waterway port, loading it on board DBR push barges and storing and guarding the items for recycling at a flooded gravel pit in eastern Germany. This enabled DBR to reactivate a large part of its mothballed fleet and use some of it for several years until the units were then employed for building logistics operations.

By the year 2000, more than 200 vessels in the DBR fleet had been rented or sold to 120 business founders, most of whom former DBR shipping personnel. This helped establish new medium-sized business structures in the inland waterway shipping sector in eastern Germany.

DBR already had a special fleet for transporting building waste, even back in the days of the former East Germany; the waste was gathered in the urban area of West Berlin and loaded for transportation to a building waste tip in the State of Brandenburg at a handling point at Berlin’s Westhafen port. As a result, DBR was included in the plans for building logistics services involving inland waterway vessels for major building sites at Potsdamer Platz and Spreebogen in the heart of Berlin; the Berlin Senate had stipulated that only rail and inland waterway services should be used. The contract was handled in close cooperation with Rhenus Berlin, which was responsible for internal building site logistics over the next few years. Daily performance figures of 30,000 tonnes of excavated soil, which were transported from the building sites to waste tips and loading points outside Berlin, and 15,000 tonnes of building materials ranging from sand and gravel to cement and even aerated concrete blocks on pallets, which were supplied to building sites on board special push barges and cement tankers, illustrate the sustainability of these building logistics concepts, but they were new at that time. They were later used at other smaller building sites within the Berlin urban area and in other metropolitan regions, too.

DBR, the pioneer of container shipping on the River Elbe

The rapid structural change in what had formally been a centrally planned economy also resulted in declining quantities of goods for eastern German and Czech inland waterway ports. In order to open up new fields of business, the ELBE CONTAINER LINIE was launched in the middle of 1995 as a joint project involving DBR, ČSPL and the River Elbe ports at Magdeburg, Aken, Riesa, Dresden, Děčín and Ústi at destinations upstream from Hamburg. It is true that the bridge clearance heights meant that it was only possible to transport two levels of containers, but the combination of various goods being transported and heavy items in push boat combinations with up to ten standard push barges caused the new container logistics service to become a success story very quickly. Because the shipping companies involved were able to use the push boat technology in shallow water levels, it was possible to guarantee year-round scheduled services with only a few days of interruptions caused by ice. DBR took over the container traffic services on the River Elbe from 2000 onwards and expanded the route to the Mittellandkanal and the ports of Braunschweig, Hanover and Minden, some of which still enjoy daily departures to this day.

‘This ideally complements our activities further inland from the Bremen ports on the River Weser and the Mittellandkanal operated by our TRIMODAL and NWL holding companies in Bremen. The first contracts with shippers for both seaports had soon been signed and are now jointly handled by NWL and DBR,’ says Maassen with a smile on his face. The companies are currently working together to develop new standards and concepts for canal-going container traffic with push barge combinations and large push barges. ‘DBR, NWL and TRIMODAL are also cooperating closely to develop new combined traffic for German seaports on behalf of well-known customers further inland and this also includes the terminal operator, EUROGATE,’ Maassen adds.

Investments in the fleet and administration

As has been the case when taking over other companies, Rhenus is pursuing the business goal of ‘jointly earning money together with DBR and not profiting from the company,’ says Maassen with firm conviction. ‘The DBR fleet was specially designed for the eastern German inland waterways and the vessels can still be used in a cost-effective manner. That’s why we’re once again making the long-standing inland waterway logistics specialist shipshape by investing in its fleet and administration. We already switched the IT landscape at DBR to the Rhenus standard system in 2021 and introduced new operational software. The DBR head office has now moved to Möllendorffstrasse 52 in Berlin Lichtenberg.’

The Berlin office is still responsible for the personnel management of the 50 DBR employees, while the bookkeeping and payroll accounting take place at the Rhenus administrative headquarters in Duisburg. ‘Thanks to the broad range of fleets represented within the Rhenus Group, ranging from small motor vessels or push boats on the Rivers Spree and Elbe to large push barge combinations on the River Rhine, we offer young people who are interested in shipping attractive workplaces and career opportunities,’ says Maassen with great confidence.

Another one of Maassen’s projects involves merging the eastern German inland waterway activities of Rhenus and Berlin subsidiary MTG with DBR AG in the near future; Rhenus holds 99 per cent of the latter’s shares. ‘Once we’ve taken over the shares of the last minority shareholders of DBR AG, we’ll turn the company into a “GmbH” (a limited company) and continue to operate it as an independent firm in Berlin,’ Maassen announces.

Investments in the DBR fleet and climate-friendly drive systems

One of the major priorities for investments involves the parts of the DBR fleet that were mothballed by the previous owner. ‘Rhenus took over 700 shipping units in all from the OT Group in 2020 and they are all entered in Polish and German shipping registers. One part of the Polish fleet has been rented to the OT Group in the form of long-term agreements. 150 older vessels from the DBR fleet, which comprises 600 ships, are being scrapped. The core operating fleet comprises 450 vessels and we’re modernising them with mounting investment budgets and equipping them for the future requirements of the market,’ Maassen explains.

In the implementation of these plans, DBR is benefitting from the accumulated expertise in the technical department at Rhenus and its role as a driver of innovations in inland waterway shipping. ‘Rhenus has established new technical standards for inland waterway shipping during the last few years by using the “flex-tunnel”, which was jointly developed with the Development Centre for Ship Technology and Transport Systems (DST) in Duisburg and is designed to improve the manoeuvrability of motor vessels in shallow waters, the electronically managed ballast system for optimising operations on canals and the fuel-saving combination of large and smaller propulsion engines in line with the “father-son” concept. We’ll continue to live up to this standard in future, too. We’re keeping an eye on the climate goals set by the EU and the German government and are using the subsidy programmes recently launched by the Federal Ministry of Transport to purchase climate-friendly drive systems,’ Maassen reports.

The Rhenus Group already made a fundamental decision in 2020 to push ahead with the technical reorientation of its own fleet. ‘We’ll be equipping all our new vessels with electric drive systems and we’ll do the same when installing new engines in future. We’ll initially use diesel generators based on truck engines as the source of electricity; because they already meet the Euro 6 emissions standard and they’re far more eco-friendly than requirements laid down in the law. They can be placed in the front or rear section of the vessel in a flexible way and therefore keep the vessels level in the water, even when they’re not carrying any load; this significantly improves loading procedures in shallow water,’ says Maassen, full of anticipation.

Low-emission electric drive systems

‘When it comes to electric drive systems, we’re also benefitting from the experience gained in other Rhenus transport departments, which have been conducting tests with electric trucks for quite some time. We’ll be purchasing 40 heavy-duty electric trucks for delivery and groupage freight traffic in 2022,’ Maassen reports. ‘We can adapt the sources of electricity for our electric motors on board the vessels in keeping with technological developments and emissions regulations in a flexible way and additionally use solar cells for ship operations when they are tied up at a port. We can alternatively operate internal combustion engines using liquid gas, GTL, bioethanol or other eco-friendly fuels that are currently being developed. Once green hydrogen becomes available, fuel cells will start to play a role and containers with battery cells, which are charged on dry land, are also conceivable for particular applications. Electric motors are quiet and cause few vibrations, save on insulation and improve the well-being of the crew,’ says Maassen with real assurance. ‘I’m not making any forecasts about which combination of energy source and drive system will emerge as the standard solution in the end. However, we’re in a good position with the electric drive system for our upcoming new vessels and for the installation of new engines so that we can make use of all the energy sources that become available in future!’

‘Thanks to the current subsidy programmes and technical opportunities, we’re already able to adopt measures to ensure that we’ll be in a significantly better position ten years from now,’ Maassen says. ‘That’s why the principle of operating in a climate-neutral manner by 2030 also applies to the DBR fleet! At least that’s our goal at Rhenus for our entire fleet and the chances that we’ll actually achieve it are not bad at all!’

Would you like to learn more?

Obtain a summary of information about Rhenus transport services on rivers and inland waterways here:

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