Inland waterway ships in the Port of Hamburg’s digital network

Hamburg is Germany’s most important seaport and therefore a major transport hub for the European economy. Yet few people know that the metropolis on the Elbe is also Germany’s second-largest inland port. The seamless arrival and departure of ships is partly overseen by the Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center (HVCC), a joint venture between HHLA and Eurogate.

Half of all cargo handled in Hamburg is transported by train. The 10 percent or so that is transported on inland ships via waterways is rather modest in comparison.

Still, transport on inland waterway ships has a huge advantage: It is reliable. Ships don’t get stuck in traffic like trucks do and are therefore usually punctual.

Furthermore, inland waterway ships are ecologically attractive. No other type of vehicle transports containers or bulk goods in such an environmentally friendly way.

From Hamburg to the hinterland, every day

Shipments leave or arrive daily in Hamburg from the hinterland along the river Elbe and its connecting canals.

There are regular connections via the Middle and Upper Elbe to Magdeburg, Aken, Torgau, Riesa, Dresden and the Czech Republic. Along the Lower Elbe, inland waterway ships stop at ports including Brunsbüttel, Cuxhaven and Glückstadt.

On the Elbe Lateral Canal, which is connected to the Mittelland Canal, there are connections to Braunschweig, Haldensleben, Hanover and Minden. Inland waterway ships also travel regularly to Berlin. 

There is great demand for inland waterway shipping connections. Since 2012, the annual volume of container traffic reaching or leaving the Port of Hamburg by inland waterway ship has grown by 50 percent to more than 145,000 standard containers (TEUs).

In 2019 alone, the Port of Hamburg recorded a 13 percent increase in container transport via inland waterway ship. Added to this were 170,000 TEU of water transports within the port, known as water-to-water transshipments. These replace approximately 120,000 annual truck journeys through the port, exemplifying a successful modal shift in the transport of goods.

HVCC optimises ship traffic

The Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center (HVCC), a joint venture between HHLA and Eurogate Container Terminal Hamburg GmbH, is contributing significantly to this development.

For over ten years, the HVCC has coordinated mega-ship, feeder and inland waterway vessel traffic in and out of Hamburg, as well as rotation within the port.

The HVCC’s task is to exchange data, to link partners, and to continuously improve the entire system by involving as many participants as possible.

Previously, many multilateral agreements were required among participating port authorities, inland shippers and shipping companies. If a ship was late, for example, this triggered an enormous number of phone calls and emails.

The HVCC’s centralised inland ship coordination uses software developed specially for inland shipping to remove inefficiencies along the transport chain. This increases the transparency of planning data and improves the reliability of processing.

“The new platform digitalises the planning of inland vessel arrivals in Hamburg, the coordination of routes within the port, the assignment of berths and terminal handling, making the processes much more transparent,” says Managing Director of the HVCC Gerald Hirt. “This ensures synchronous data exchange between the inland shipping companies, the ship crew, the terminals and the HVCC.”

At an early stage, the HVCC draws on the synergies resulting from the planning of ship calls at the terminals, thus optimising the port rotation as a whole. This leads to shorter stays in the port, better planning of ship calls, optimised capacity at the terminals and improved handling quality.

For the shipping companies, this means lower fuel consumption and the avoidance of unnecessary waiting times. Inland shipping thus becomes more attractive to freight forwarders and shipping agents, who can reduce their environmental footprint.

Better digital integration in the port makes inland waterway shipping more attractive as a high performance and environmentally friendly mode of transport. Hamburg’s Senator for Economic Affairs Michael Westhagemann knows this too: “An institution like the HVCC is unique in Europe. It has evolved to become an established player in the maritime world and is a best-practice example of digitalisation in action in the Port of Hamburg. The development of a coordination platform for inland shipping will further boost the competitiveness of this sustainable mode of transport. This is a positive factor for Hamburg as a port city.” The development of the HVCC inland shipping platform was funded by the Hamburg Ministry of Economy, Transport and Innovation.