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Danube River maintains Ukraine’s container operations

In the face of a concerted effort to cripple Ukraine’s port infrastructure, Danube River ports at Reni and Izmail have maintained exports throughout the war and the influence of these ports is growing.

The Danube River in Ukraine is a vital shipping route, and its importance increased with the decline of Ukraine’s exports via the Black Sea in the early part of the war with Russia.

Insurers at the International Union of Maritime Insurers (IUMI) acknowledged that as Russian military activities prevented exports through Black Sea ports, Danube terminals such as Reni and Izmail, have taken up some of the export burden.

IUMI President Frédéric Denèfle told journalists yesterday: “Since Ukraine opened its grain corridor last August, Russia has attacked port infrastructure to limit the grain exports without hitting foreign vessels.”

This tactic has not really succeeded with Ukraine having exported around 10m tonnes of grain since last September, according to Denèfle. “Ukrainian grain has also been transported via the Danube ports throughout the war,” he added.

Although originally designed for other types of cargo, these small shallow-draft terminals have been adapted by port operators to accommodate the growing demand for container shipping in the region.

According to data from Informall BG, the Port of Reni handles various commodities, however, the biggest volume is agricultural products. These include vegetable oil stored in flexitanks for export, grains loaded directly into containers, as well as a variety of frozen and general food products.

The import portfolio is diverse, containing a range of goods such as equipment, tools, vehicles, food and beverages, household items, and certain raw materials, notably those utilised in the production of plastic items.

To ensure overland logistics, Ukrainian railway operators have taken the responsibility of delivering heavy-weight containers to and from the terminals. While liner operators such as the Turkish operator Akkon’s service to Izmail and Maersk’s operations in the port of Reni have emerged among the first to offer their liner services to Ukraine.

Prior efforts to incorporate barges into the container shipping operations along the Danube River have proven to be less efficient in comparison to operations that incorporate smaller cellular or general cargo ships able to navigate the Black Sea-Danube canals namely Bystre and Sulina.

Informall BG consultant Daniil Melnychenko spoke with Igor Bogdanov, the country manager of Akkon’s Ukraine division, who provided some insights into the service set up.

Akkon was the first liner operator to establish a direct connection from Turkey to the Ukrainian port of Izmail, with the first shipment taking place in early August 2022.

One distinctive feature of Akkon’s service is that the company utilises its own general cargo vessel, Chona, which means that containers arrive at Izmail under Akkon’s consignment, with proper liner insurance in place allowing for a reduction in cargo-related risks for all parties involved in the supply chain.

According to Igor Bogdanov, the goal was to evacuate empty container equipment and accommodate export containers stuck in Ukrainian container terminals. It took a while before the first import container shipment took place, however, now this service accommodates boxes in both directions allowing a connection to the Ukrainian market via a number of destinations beyond Türkiye.

Meanwhile, Maersk’s operations at Reni are also gaining ground. Melnychenko told Container News: “Maersk holds the biggest share of the Ukrainian market by integrating its Constanta-Reni service with alternative overland routes.

“Through an exclusive agreement with the Port of Reni Maersk has created a dependable and cost-efficient service, bypassing the usual congestion at overland cross-border points with Romania. This strategic approach ensures reliable shipping solutions while minimizing reliance on trucking networks”

Melnychenko added that KTL Ukraine, a major player in the Ukrainian logistics sector, has introduced a container barge service named KTL PORT, linking the Ukrainian port of Reni with the Romanian port of Constanta every ten days, as announced by the company. The barge is hired and operated by KTL team in Ukraine.

Moreover, the launch of the Grain Corridor has reduced the persistent congestion on the canals, resulting in faster container turnover on the route. Although river-sea going vessels offer a more efficient logistical solution for connecting Constanta with Reni and Izmail via the canals, they are still constrained by the seasonal fluctuations in river draught highlights Melnychenko.

Maersk shipping line has also been developing alternative logistics routes to accommodate its clients in Ukraine making multiple testing shipments along the Danube River while evacuating its own equipment from blocked Ukrainian terminals on the Black Sea.

Apparently, to ensure seamless logistics for its clients prior to the official announcement of the new container service, Maersk is in cooperation with ‘Viking Alliance’ which launched a container terminal in the port Reni in December 2022.

According to the Ukrainian District State Administration website the terminal handled nearly 1,500 TEUs during the first month of operation. This service has been in the testing phase since early 2022 and is being operated in collaboration with third-party barge and vessel operators. Finally, on 6 March 2023, Maersk made the service available for direct online bookings to the port of Reni.

Today, there are at least two vessels operating on this route, among them T-Moon with a capacity of 381 TEUs and the 465 TEU BM-Eagle, both are third party operated.

Maersk also involved river barge operators to accommodate services via Danube River routes with an announced transit time of 1.5 days. Informall BG estimated that Maersk barge services on the Danube River could handle up to 650 TEUs each month while the combined service capacity is estimated at 3,000 TEUs per month.

The available barge and vessel capacity is shared among other carriers which collaborate with Maersk on this route such as MSC, CMA CGM.

By leveraging the capacity of third-party sea-river vessels and river barges, this service offers a broad range of destinations beyond Reni, once containers are transhipped at the Constanta port. Both alternative logistics solution offers much-needed relief from overland transit trucking from Romania to Ukraine, which was previously the primary option.

Mary Ann Evans
Correspondent at Large

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