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.