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The Rhine as a way of transportation

The BASF site in Ludwigshafen without the Rhine? Unthinkable. Today, the Ludwigshafen site premises stretch over a distance of 10 kilometers along the Rhine. At the three company-owned harbors, an average of 12 inland vessels dock per day transporting raw materials and products to the site in liquid, solid and gaseous form as well as taking them to the customer.

A glance at the loading capacities of the most significant means of transportation shows just how important the Rhine is for the Ludwigshafen site, particularly when observing the raw materials supply chain. Inland navigation vessels are the largest suppliers of raw materials and can transport an average of 2,000 metric tons. Freight trains can transport an average of between 1,200 and 1,500 metric tons as block trains. The combined transportation option of trains and trucks (intermodal transport) takes third place: The loading capacity of the tank containers used for transporting raw materials is around 25 metric tons.

All these options are necessary when the Rhine is restricted as a reliable waterway due to seasonal events or other unexpected incidents. “The Rhine is simultaneously a blessing and a challenge for the Ludwigshafen site: It is the supply artery for the site and is the most important transport route for large amounts of goods. If there are any issues here, it affects the whole site,” says Dr. Andreas Backhaus, Head of European Site Logistics (ESL).

And this is exactly what happened in the second half of 2018: Ship traffic came to almost a complete halt on Germany’s most important water route between September and December with low water levels increasingly restricting the loading capacities of the ships.

2000 tons

... is what an average inland navigation vessel can transport.

So, how can a situation like this be dealt with?

In the event of nascent low water levels, BASF logistics employees first mitigate the loading restrictions for inland vessels. In two working groups, representatives from logistics, production plants, supply chain units and operating divisions cooperate closely. “The most important aspect is to ensure that intensive communication between the affected production plants and the customer takes place early on,” said Dieter Mehrle (G-FPO/ER), Barging Services Europe, who is responsible for inland waterway logistics at the Ludwigshafen site. The other measures include regular forecasts on the short-term development of the river water levels, continuous monitoring of goods flows and constantly checking the options provided by other transport carriers.

“October and November 2018 were pretty tough months for us. However, what the colleagues in the affected units achieved was amazing,” commented Mehrle. The colleagues from rail transport were also heavily involved in mastering this challenge at the Ludwigshafen site: “There weren’t many tank cars available and the ones we had were assigned to the raw materials to be transported according to their priority. The new BASF class tank containers already helped during this period,” said Katharina Günther (ESL/RL), team leader of rail tank car steering.

In order to be properly prepared for low levels of water in the Rhine, concepts of how to supply the site more reliably during these times are currently in development according to Mehrle. These concepts range from short-term measures such as booking additional charter ships for specified time frames all the way up to agreements with shipping companies on the provision of special ships which can travel in low water levels. (For more information, see the interview with site director Dr. Uwe Liebelt.) “There will definitely be changes in the future, but the Rhine will remain a vital transport route for us,” said Mehrle.

Transportation ways in spite of low water levels

The low level of the Rhine in 2018 clearly demonstrated just how significant Germany’s most important water transport route is when it comes to supplying the Ludwigshafen site. The logistics units at BASF needed huge commitment from their teams and quick reactions to all the different issues in order to get through this period.

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When the proverbial “six inches of water under the keel” is in danger of becoming five or even less, the BASF site at Ludwigshafen is faced with many special challenges. Inland navigation vessels play a significant role when it comes to supplying the Ludwigshafen site with raw materials. For example, an average of 12 inland vessels dock at the BASF harbors each day, with around three-quarters of this number loaded with raw materials. The inland vessels also link the Ludwigshafen site with the international ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp, together known as ARA. “The Ludwigshafen site uses the level of the Rhine at Kaub as a marker. This part of the river with its rocky bed is the shallowest part of the Rhine which a ship must navigate between the North Sea and the Upper Rhine,” said Dieter Mehrle from Barging Services Europe (G-FPO/ER). If the water level relevant for shipping drops below 160 cm at this point, the Rhine has a low water level. For inland shipping, this means that the load must be reduced. Depending on how low the water level is, the same load capacity may require more ships, which is a challenging situation for both the shipping companies and the BASF loading coordinators. At the time of the lowest water level in November 2018, only ships suitable for very low water levels were capable of reaching the BASF harbors, as Mehrle explained. 

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When inland vessels are forced to reduce their loads, the first alternative option is rail transport. This is a great challenge for the BASF railway logistics unit, as the free market reacts very quickly to changes due to low water levels – meaning the transport capacities and tank cars are not as readily available. In 2018, BASF also carried out planned and unplanned factory updates, which required additional amounts of raw materials to be transported by rail. From October 2018, the railway logistics team and all the affected parties held daily telephone conferences to discuss which raw materials were to be transported to Ludwigshafen by rail. The challenge in situations like these is to deploy the scarce resources as they are required in order to uphold the value chains at the site. This includes providing enough tank cars, the on-site transportation to the loading stations and external transportation.

“These were intense months, as the low water level lasted for an unexpectedly long time. We had to make significant cuts and tank cars had to be assigned in the Verbund coordination group. Without the motivation and close collaboration of the BASF teams, it would not have been possible to manage these challenges,” said Peter Rösner (FPO/EE) and Gerd Fischer (ESL/RL) proudly. “From the physical and administrative logistics units to freight procurement in close collaboration with the business units, everyone involved achieved great things.” 

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When taking a glance at the truck and intermodal transport options, it becomes apparent that all transport carriers are equally important for supplying the site in the case of natural events, such as the low water level.

Even if trucks play a subordinate role when it comes to supplying the site with raw materials – in contrast to their significance in sales logistics – this transport method played an important role in overcoming the issues caused by the low water level in 2018. For instance, from mid-October, the employees from the Transport Management Surface Bulk Europe team (G-FPO/ETE) controlled over 65 rented tank containers, which were used to continuously supply the site via road and combined transport. “Overland transport is highly flexible and can quickly adjust to changing situations,” says team leader Dirk Wagner (G-FPO/ETE). This meant that the internal truck logistics experts were important partners to the supply planners during the period of low water. “Many colleagues recognized that our transport volume of around 8,000 metric tons made a significant contribution to supplying the site, something we are very proud of,” said Wagner.