Belgium subsidizes barges in a bid to shift freight from road to inland waterways

Efforts to improve inland services in Antwerp, the North Sea port and Zeebrugge intensified this week, with the Flemish government injecting 12.5 million euros ($14.18 million) in financial support.

The Loadstar understands that the subsidies are part of a four-year plan, supplemented by footbridges to the tune of €14.3 million, to subsidize projects intended to increase the share of volumes transported by barge and to discourage road travel.

A source said The Loadstar“While €14.3m over four years doesn’t seem like a lot, I don’t think it will take much to move the volumes inland – I’m not worried about the money.

“What worries me is that we’ve seen initiatives like this before and the grants won’t last indefinitely. Once they are exhausted, projects lose their viability and we are back to square one again – there are many examples of this. »

More worrying, the source said, is that the program only concerns domestic services in Belgium, but around 60% of the volumes come from outside the country, which means that the effects of the project will be limited.

The money will be made available to companies that successfully win a co-operation deal with the government, through a public bidding process looking for what it calls ‘corridor shuttles’. and terminal-hub projects aimed at consolidating volumes.

By 2030, it is understood that the Flemish government wants to see some 42% of inland transport provided by inland navigation.

“I hope that the members of the committee responsible for evaluating the proposals understand the nature of the problems which affect inland navigation and are able to anticipate the evolution of these problems as they increase the number of barges”, the source continued.

“That means focusing heavily on operators consolidating volumes away from deepwater terminals, so instead of having five ships showing up for berths, you only have one.”

Over the past five years, The Loadstar reported major delays affecting Belgian and Dutch barge services, which at their peak lasted more than a week as operators refused to cooperate in consolidating volumes to reduce services seeking berths. ‘mooring.

Sources say this is the hurdle that “must be overcome” if inland waterways are to prove a successful alternative to road services.

“The subsidies will help local barge operators to enter the market and attract more inland shipping companies, as they will be able to offer a cheap price thanks to the subsidies, but they will need consolidation,” said said a source. “It will work well as long as the government money keeps coming in, but they won’t put it in forever and at some point the pot will empty.”

News of the cash injection comes amid preparations for the merger of Antwerp and Zeebrugge, with the Belgian Competition Authority signing the deal last week and sources telling The Loadstar the ports will officially merge on April 28.