In recent weeks and months there were frequent reports on how the Russian Navy is blockading the last remaining Ukrainian Black Sea port at Odessa, which might lead to a global grain shortage. While an export of Ukrainian grain by rail to the North Sea ports in Germany is possible, this route is severely bottlenecked due to lack of rail capacity in Germany and different rail gauges.
However, the broad gauge rail network from Ukraine extends all the way to Sławków, an eastern suburb of Katowice, with the Linia Hutnicza Szerokotorowa (English Wikipedia), while in the west the network of waterways and canals extends all the way from the German North Sea ports to Gliwice, a western suburb of Katowice, with the Gliwice Canal (English Wikipedia).
A closing of this ‘Katowice Gap’ promises to alleviate the bottleneck in the European freight network. Ukraine could, then, no longer be extorted by the Russian through the blockade of Odessa’s port.
Ukraine is the world’s 7th largest producer of wheat, with 33 million tons in 2021/22; while this output is small compared to the total output of the top three producers (EU, China and India), who produced over 100 million tons each (Article by DW), most of the worlds grain production is consumed locally and not traded internationally. Ukraine and Russia “together produce about 60 million tons of the 200 million tons traded annually around the world.” The trader interviewed by DW comments that “’The world cannot do without the harvests from Ukraine and Russia. Their amounts are simply too big,’ said Sabel, noting that news from the frontline can influence prices as much as likely forecasts for the next grain harvest in the United States.”
It also appears possible, though, that an increase in wheat production in other countries will globally compensate the lack of Ukrainian exports (as argued by a commentary in Fortune magazine). So hopefully there won’t be a global food shortage. Also, the forecast for the grain harvest in the United States appears to be good.
In any case, the inability to export its grain will damage the Ukrainian economy, which obviously is the intention of the Putin regime. A snippet on Youtube from Sky News explains the importance of Odessa, as Ukraine’s only remaining export port, and mentions the amount of grain that now has to be exported in a different way: „Why didn’t they move this grain by land well if you look at the 25 million tons of grain that will be around 1 million trucks worth so it’s just not practical.“
What the commentor doesn’t discuss is the option to transport the Ukrainian grain by rail. The Czech rail company ČD Cargo has successfully shipped at least 1,800 tons of Ukrainian corn to the North Sea port of Brake (near Bremen) in Lower Saxony, according to a posting on Facebook from an Ukrainian news site. They link the original article (in Ukrainian, Google Translate to English). Another article there mentions that Deutsche Bahn organizes 2-3 trains each day from Ukraine through Poland to terminals in Western Europe.
So why aren’t Deutsche Bahn and ČD Cargo sending more trains with grain from Ukraine to the German North Sea ports? Because they are facing two bottlenecks that cannot be resolved short term! The first bottleneck is well known: Ukraine, as a part of the former Soviet Union (and, before that, part of the Russian Empire) uses broad-gauge tracks, whereas Poland and its neighboring countries to the west historically use standard-gauge tracks. (Here’s a map from the magazine ‘Katapult’.) A freight train from Ukraine to western Europe would either need a special locomotive and wagons, that can switch gauges, or a facility that can transfer the cargo between two different trains, in this case a grain elevator. Apparently ČD Cargo has such a facility at Dobra in Slovakia, but information on the capacity there are not easily available.
The other bottleneck is the capacity of the railways in western Europe. That is the reason why I am writing this proposal. As a politician running for election to the state assembly of Lower Saxony, I am acutely aware of the deficiencies of the railway infrastructure here. Both mainline railways to the coast (and the ports of Bremen and Hamburg) pass through the Hannover Region, and these are already overburdened. The Federal ministry of transportation expects a usage of literally 110 % by 2030 (according to a map in this entry in the ‘Bundesverkehrswegeplan’).
What could be meant by this? According to a fact check by Deutsche Bahn (in German), a typical two track mainline railway (in this example the North Access to the Brenner in the Alps) has a realistic capacity of 240 trains a day. Deutsche Bahn can, however, also run 260 trains a day – but then there aren’t any reserves in case a train is late, and the following trains will have to be delayed, too. Consider this, the next time your train is late at a station in Germany – this is likely due to the fact, that parts of the German rail network are utilized at 110%.
While I don’t have specific information on the remaining capacity on the other German mainline railways, the problem is generally the same. Theoretically, it would be possible to move 25 million tons of grain by rail. One cargo train can replace 50 trucks, so instead of 1 million trucks, one would only need 20.000 trains, or 200 trains each day for 100 days. Of course, practically this is impossible; the inland rail connections to the North Sea ports could never handle that many additional trains.
Targeted investments in logistics?
The problem with the lack of rail capacity in Northern Germany can’t be fixed within any time frame, where this would be helpful. But maybe there are other options for targeted investments into infrastructure, that would alleviate the logistical bottleneck?
And indeed, there are. While the rail network for freight was neglected by the German Federal Government in the last decades, after the German Unification the network of ship canals was finally completed with the “Trogbrücke Magdeburg” (Article in German). There is now a continuous waterway between the Rhine in the west and the river Oder in the east, which is connected to the German North Sea ports via the rivers Elbe and Weser. Most importantly, from the river Oder ships can reach Gliwice, a city in the western part of the Katowice urban area (Wikipedia) via the Gliwice Canal (Wikipedia). This canal has spare capacity. The German Wikipedia mentions that the canal is only used nowadays to transport 300.000 tons yearly, whereas before 1990 it was used to transport 3 million tons of cargo. It was built originally, when Upper Silesia war part of Germany, and the Nazi Government intended to expand its logistical network eastwards.
The Katowice urban area (Wikipedia) can also be reached by the reached by the broad-gauge railway Linia Hutnicza Szerokotorowa (Wikipedia) from the east. This line was built in the late 1970s to expand the logistical network of the USSR westwards. Initially, it was used to supply iron ore from the USSR to the Katovice Steel works; this, and the export of polish coal and sulfur, has apparently been discontinued since the 1990s. Instead, there had been, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine 2022, some container traffic. With the Euroterminal Sławków (Homepage), there is a large goods facility at the end of the broad-gauge line, which apparently has facilities for container cargo and coal, but not the facilities for grain, that would be needed.
From there to the inland harbor at Gliwice the distance is only slightly larger than 50 km. The urban area is densely built-up, but there are routes along the existing rail corridors. Would it be possible to quickly add another 50 km of broad-gauge rail? Or could some existing standard-gauge rail be converted? How long would it take to build a grain elevator and a harbor for bulk goods river barges near Gliwice? Would this close the Katowice Gap and solve the bottleneck for the Ukrainian grain?
One problem is, that the Gliwice canal only has a depth of 2,25 meters (and probably can’t be deepened in the short term). This would only allow class I bulk goods barge (German Wikipedia), and these can carry apparently only 270 tons of freight. By contrast, a class IV barge on the river Oder up to Eisenhüttenstadt can transport 1350 tons and a class Va barge on the Elbe river can transport 2800 tons (Article ‘Binnenschiff’ on the German Wikipedia).
If the Gliwice canal doesn’t have the depth for river barges with high draft, the Elbe River certainly has. Maybe the Ukrainian grain could be transferred once from a broad-gauge train to a standard gauge train (which would require a new grain elevator to be built somewhere around Sławków near Katowice), and then be transferred a second time from the train to a river barge to avoid the rail bottleneck on the mainline railways to the North Sea ports? To answers these questions, one would need a map of the railways in Poland and Germany, including their total capacity for cargo trains and their usage.
While I don’t not have enough information for most railways, I do have information on a section of specific railway between the Polish border and the Elbe River. The part of the former Lower Silesia Mainline (Niederschlesische Magistrale) between Knappenrode in Germany and Węgliniec in Poland has been recently modernized with funds from the state of Saxony. A German Youtuber has made a video about it. He mentions that it could now run 180 freight trains daily, but only runs about 20, so there certainly is spare capacity here. Another video by the same youtuber on the same railway to the west, between Wittenberg and Ruhland, is less specific, but apparently there is a lot spare capacity there, too. If there is enough spare capacity (50+ trains daily?) on the railways between Wittenberg in Germany and Katowice in Poland, it would be useful to build a terminal with a grain elevator somewhere at the Elbe river between Wittenberg and Riesa to transfer Ukrainian grain from a trains to river barges, to avoid the bottlenecks on the mainline railways in Lower Saxony.
The Danubian Option
The idea to connect the broad-gauge rail network of the former Soviet Union with the network of waterways in western Europa isn’t new. Already in 2006, the Russian officials suggested building a Košice–Vienna broad-gauge line (Wikipedia). Košice is the current terminus of the broad-gauge rail network in Slovakia. While a commissioning of the new line was apparently planned by 2025, this is most likely not going to happen, at least not with Russian participation. Regardless of the political situation, as about 450 km of broad-gauge track would have to be laid and the project would require 2-3 years to complete.
There is a third option, and that one is already being realized. Ukraine has two small ports at the river Danube, Ismajil and Reni. From there, grain can be transported by barge up the Danube and then via the Danube–Black Sea Canal (Wikipedia) to the Romanian port of Constanța. “Since the blockade, 616,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain have reached the Constanta port”, as mentioned in this Report from Al Jazeera. Using only inland waterway, the Russian blockade of the black sea is bypassed – and Russia hopefully won’t escalate the conflict internationally by attacking neutral ships loading grain in Romania.
To speed up the transport, the Romanian government is going to reactive 4,5 km of broad-gauge track between the Ukrainian border and the port of Galați on the Danube river (see also this report from Reuters). From there it is less than 200 km by river barge to the grain silos in the port of Constanța.
Even President Biden has commented on the need to export 20 million tons of grain (not 25?) from Ukraine and proposed to build additional grain silos on the Polish border (report from Reuters). The EU commission, and specifically the commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean, have presented an action plan to “help Ukraine export its agricultural produce” (Press Release). The commission sees “increasing the infrastructure capacity of new export corridors” and “establishing new infrastructure connections” as a priority for the “medium term”, and in the short-term intents to focus, e.g., on “Additional freight rolling stock, vessels and lorries”. I tend to disagree. While the building process itself can only be speed up to a certain point (concrete takes time to harden), the planning process can be expedited by allocating additional personal, and specific regulations, which usually take a lot of time (environmental review and citizen participation) can be foregone, as this is an emergency. Legally, this would likely require a specific act of parliament authorizing the infrastructure construction, but, considering the solidarity with Ukraine in Germany and Poland, this should be easy to obtain. The real question is: Who’s responsibility would it be to plan and fund the necessary investments? I’ve done what I can with publicly available sources – any further planning will require information that is probably not publicly accessible.
As the military historian Martin Van Creveld has commented “Logistic wins wars”. In this case, a railway network with spare capacity between the Polish border and the German North Sea ports (assuming there is spare capacity in Poland, too), would allow Ukraine to export its grain, despite the Russian blockade of is ports. Too few politicians in Germany had expected the Russian invasion (if they had, they would have built the LNG-Terminal at Wilhelmshaven [German Wikipedia] much earlier). But politics need not have waited for an emergency, like a large war on the same continent, to understand that it is useful to have infrastructure with excess capacity. Germany has neglected its freight railway infrastructure for too long. It is time to change that.