Barge freight rates in northwest Europe have hit recent highs, with shipments from the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) trading and refining hub disrupted by strike action in Belgium. With constraints likely to tighten as water levels rise on the Rhine river, already-tight product markets in Germany could feel another squeeze.
Barge loadings in Antwerp have faced delays this week by a 48-hour strike among members of the CGSP union that began at 22:00 local time (21:00 GMT) on Tuesday, 5 December. The union represents workers across various public sector industries, including those working on the country’s rail networks and ports and terminals.
The action is affecting movement of oil products in and out of Belgian ports, according to participants active in the ARA barge market. Congestion on the waterways has mounted and backlogs have risen at loading terminals. Hundreds of barges were at one point stuck on the Albert canal, which connects Antwerp with Liege, because locks were not operational, according to barging broker Riverlake.
Belgian oil product exports — which mostly leave from Antwerp — are 96,000 t/d so far in December, lower than 114,000 t/d over the same period a year earlier, although higher from nearer 75,000 t/d in the opening days of November, according to Vortexa.
ExxonMobil operates a 307,000 b/d refinery and TotalEnergies a 338,000 b/d refinery in Antwerp. It is unclear if the strike action is affecting loadings from these plants, but issues may arise if disruption continues to barge movements in the ARA area.
This may come, as water levels on the Rhine river are already high and forecast to rise further. Levels are seen reaching highs of 750cm at Maxau, in Germany’s Baden-Wurttemberg region, on 12 December, depths at which a sailing ban on the river is typically enforced. Participants in the region expect that ban to be in effect on the upper Rhine from next Tuesday, 12 December, and on the middle Rhine valley from Thursday 15 December. Barge movements are already disrupted in Germany following the grounding of a barge between Bingen and Kaub on 6 December.
Applying further pressure, German barge fleets are fully booked for at least the next two weeks and some operators are unlikely to have availability for new loadings until the end of the year. If barges become congested on the Rhine, or trapped in Belgium’s waterways, logistics will become strained further still as barge rates rise. Germany has been more reliant on Rhine-imported gasoline and diesel barges in recent weeks and months, as refinery run rates in the country have languished given various planned and unplanned outages. That will be felt even more acutely if traffic on the Rhine is limited or halted.
ARA barge rates are already at their highest point in over a year, having risen rapidly in recent weeks. Rates for a barge on the Antwerp to Amsterdam route have been assessed by Argus at above $9/t since 27 November, the highest since June 2022 when Argus assessments began.