A €500 million widening project just inaugurated on Germany’s Kiel Canal is but one part of an extensive €2.6 billion upgrade of the world’s busiest man-made waterway, writes Tom Todd.

Widening work on a 20km stretch at the northeastern end of the canal officially opened in October marking the start of what is billed as the biggest current German waterway network investment. Lasting ten years, it is the responsibility of the government’s Waterways and Shipping Administration WSV.

Built 125 years ago, the 98km Kiel Canal links the North Sea and the Baltic across Schleswig-Holstein saving ships a long detour north through the Skagerrak. As many as 30,000 ships a year normally use it but that has declined of late. In 2019 less than 29,000 of 83.5 million tons sailed through it - 5% fewer ships and 4 million tons less than in 2018.

Accidents, many involving locks, as well as aging facilities are among the main reasons for decline and are motivating current upgrading.

The stretch now being widened is between Grosskönigsförde and Kiel-Holtenau and is described as the last remaining bottleneck on the waterway.

At this point the canal is just 44m wide. It is being widened by some 40m to provide a minimum bottom width of 70m, improving traffic flows and minimizing delays. Curve radii easing will also make it easier for ships to pass each other.

German Transport Minister Andeas Scheuer points particularly to significant improvements for international shipping. “The canal is already a fundamental part of the global transport network”, he says. “Its advantages are obvious: lower costs, less travel time and less CO2. Every single investment in the Kiel Canal is a contribution to climate protection and to strengthening the German economy”, he adds.

A €120 million contract was awarded earlier this year covering the dredging, widening and landscaping of the first 4kms of the 20kms upgrade stretch. About two million m3 of soil are being moved, some 58,000 m² of revetments installed and over a million m3 of soil dredged and relocated by the end of 2023.

The WSV told Maritime Journal the work was being tackled by a consortium grouping DEME subsidiaries Nordsee Nassbagger und Tiefbau and Dredging International. Also involved are the Dutch firms Depenbrock Bau and Van den Herik Kust- En Oeverwerken.

Another ongoing major project is the Fifth Lock in Brunsbüttel on the Elbe Estuary to the south. It has been under construction since 2015 but plagued by delays and rising costs, many blamed on challenging construction and disputes. The latest word is that the planned new 360m x 45m x 16m Fifth Lock will open late 2026 and cost €830 million – nearly three times the original estimate. A consortium grouping Wayss & Freytag Ingenieurbau, BAM Civiel and Wayss & Freytag Spezialtiefbau are handling the project for the WSV.

North on the Baltic, the historic and much deteriorated double-chamber small lock in Kiel-Holtenau has been filled in with130,000m3 of sand for stabilisation. Work on a replacement lock is not expected to begin there until at least 2023.

The plan is to replace the 125m x 21.5m chambers with bigger 155m x 22.5m locks costing some €315 million. They would be capable of handling up to 70% of traffic diverted during the later renovation of the parallel 310m x 42m double lock. The likely cost of that lock is not known. With time it will cope with expected sea level rises and higher water levels.

Other projects are also taking their time elsewhere on the waterway. Work on replacing the important Levensauer Bridge could start next year, take five years to complete and cost €68 million. The completion of a €90 million renovation project on the Rendsburg Canal Tunnel, expected this year, has now been delayed. So too - probably until next year – has the €11.5 million rebuilding of the historic Rendsburg Transporter Bridge, damaged in a ship collision in 2016.