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In Soaring Freight Market, Russia Eyes Boxship Route Up the Volga

putin
Alexei Rakhmanov, USC's president, discusses an inland-waterway container freight proposal with Vladimir Putin (Kremlin)

Published Jul 25, 2021 11:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

In addition to the Suez Canal, the Northern Sea Route and the "Silk Road" rail route through Russia and Kazakhstan, shippers may soon have a new inland-waterway option for taking their cargo from China to Northern Europe. Russia's United Shipbuilding Company (USC) is designing a new series of Volga-sized boxships to carry containerized cargo on a riverine voyage from the Caspian Sea through to the Baltic.

According to Alexander Rakhmanov, USC's president, the proposal calls for loading containers originating from Western China or Iran at ports on the Caspian Sea. From the Caspian, the shipment route would proceed up the Volga, past Olya, Volgograd, Kazan, Nizhy Novgorod, Lake Onega and out to the Baltic at St. Petersburg. Alternate destinations include Moscow (via the Moscow Canal) or the White Sea (using smaller vessels). The route would be within Russia's Unified Deep Water System of inland canals, locks and rivers.

"It is possible to take cargo in the north of Iran or in the west of China and take it to Helsinki through the port of Olya. The ship will sail . . . to Helsinki at a speed of [10 knots] for seven to eight days. And no Somali pirates, no problems with steamships stuck in the Suez Canal," said Rakhmanov in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Today, this year, we are starting the design of a container ship that will sail across the [Volga] to Helsinki. Thus, we will open paths that do not depend on foreigners."

According to Rakhmanov, the key issue is the cost of operating the route. USC is working with Russian transport companies to address its economy.

If implemented, vessel size would be constrained by the dimensions of the Volga-Baltic Waterway, which limits passage to vessels of at most 690 feet in length and a shallow 13 feet of draft - far from the economies of scale found in a Megamax-24 boxship. The canal's locks also handle a steady stream of freighters and small tankers, leaving only so many open slots for a new container shipping operation.

In addition, said Rakhmanov, there is a serious draft restriction in the Gorodets area near Nizhny Novgorod. "There the draft, unfortunately, does not exceed [8.5 feet]. And we need [10 feet] in order to carry a full load," he said.