The use of inland waterways could help to make freight transport more sustainable but only if strong environmental concerns are respected and resolved: fit the ships to the rivers and not the other way round!
Europe has about 30,000 km of canals and rivers that interconnect a broad number of different cities and industrial centres. The core network links the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Austria. Towards Eastern Europe it is mainly the Danube that serves as the main waterway.
Goods that could be transported on waterways are generally heavy materials, bulk industrial goods, building products, containers, oversized loads and waste. Transport on waterways offers good value to customers because of its low cost and efficient operation. Transport on water is more reliable and can be planned in a better way. It does not suffer from congestion and therefore has not the problems roads and rail face at the moment. It has a very favourable energy efficiency and considerable growth potential. Despite these strong advantages, inland shipping has only, in a limited way, been able to participate in the growing transport market. Thereby, it has lost modal share, especially to road transport, in the last decades.
The aspect of inter-modality and the existence of inter-modal nodes is one of the main issues
that has to be addressed in order to facilitate the modal shift from road, or even from rail, to waterborne transport. Establishing new or upgrading existing multimodal logistical nodes is of utmost importance especially within the new member states.
Inland waterway infrastructure faces a huge conflict between discussions on common standards for certain corridors (in order to guarantee the permability for certain types of vessels and loads) and environmental problems like the depletion of nature areas and the loss of floodplains, etc. This conflict has also to be seen before the background of the objectives of the Water-Framework directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) that foresees the prevention of further deterioration and the protection and enhancement of the status of aquatic ecosystems and, with regard to their water needs, terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands directly depending on the aquatic ecosystems.
More importantly for large rivers it is therefore indispensable to look at the whole river basin in order to draw up sustainable navigation plans that are in line with the environmental objectives, especially regarding the depth requirements of the waterway.
In order to avoid deterioration on a large scale much more effort has to be put into the upgrading of the fleet. The research in and construction of new ships that meet the environmental targets has to be pushed. Already now types of vessels exist that can achieve the economic targets of long distance transport with minimal negative side effects in terms of ecology.
If the eco-innovation of the fleet goes hand-in-hand with other "inteligence" enhancements like the improvement of the methodologies for forecasting water levels or the establishment of inter-modal logistic nodes as mentioned above, waterborne transport could become a really attractive alternative to other modes of transport and could help to make transport in Europe more sustainable.