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Russia Starts Building Ships for North-South Trade Route to Iran

Russian river containership
Construction has begun on four versatile container/bulk carriers that will sail on rivers and the Caspian Sea (USC)

Published May 12, 2023 8:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

The first block for a new class of Russian domestic containership that is also capable of carrying dry bulk cargo was laid down at the Lotos Shipyard, part of the state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation. In addition to the unique design, the shipbuilding corporation is reporting the ships will be a key contributor to Russia’s plans for the North-South International Transport Corridor and proof that Russian shipbuilding is proceeding despite the sanctions.

Construction is beginning on the first of four vessels that will be the lead to the class. The vessels measure approximately 463 feet in length and have a 55-foot beam and depth of up to approximately 20 feet giving them the maximum dimensions to transit the Volga-Don Canal. The 60-mile long waterway opened in the 1950s makes it possible to sail from Saint Petersburg to the Caspian Sea. 

The design for the vessels was developed by the design bureau of USC, Vympel Design Bureau in Nizhny Novgorod, and they are saying it is unique because in addition to containers, it can carry any type of dry cargo, including grain, timber, and lumber, general cargo, in two holds. The vessels will also have a large capacity for oversized cargo. The capacity will vary between 5,000 tons for river transport, where it is limited to a draft of approximately 12 feet, and 9,200 tons for sea transport. Propulsion for the vessels will consist of two medium-speed diesel engines each with 1200 kW and two rudder propellers with a speed of up to 10 knots. There will also be two auxiliary diesel generators of 400 kW which will be enough to power 60 refrigerated containers.

According to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Energy of the Astrakhan Region the plan is to build a total of 21 of the vessels for the North-South trade. Officials have said that at least 45 ships of the Volga-Don Max class are needed longer term for the new corridor. Each vessel is expected to cost about $22 million to build.

Officials of USC highlighted the start of the project with the keel laying on May 4 as evidence of the strength of Russian shipbuilding. The Lotos Shipyard where the vessels are being built was one of 28 subsidiaries as well as United Shipbuilding Corporation designated by the U.S. Department of State in April 2022 as being part of the Russian defense establishment. The sanctions implemented in response to the war in Ukraine prevent U.S. companies from working with, financing, or providing supplies to the sanctioned shipyards.

The new vessels are part of an agreement highlighted by Russia to build trade on the Caspian Sea. The corridor stretches some 4,500 miles and links to Iran’s railway and road system. The endpoint is the port of Bandar Abbas and from there, cargo will also be able to continue by sea to India. Branches along the route also make it possible to send cargo to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. 

Russian officials reported that they expect with the contribution of these new vessels trade will grow dramatically along this route. They said that 17 million tonnes move along the route currently and it will grow to 32 million tonnes by 2030.

The first of the new vessels is due to enter service in 2024.  Two ships of the class will be delivered during the first year and two additional ships in 2025.