More intermodal transport also means increasing the development of goods transport on the Po River. The following are the numbers and future projects for a method that is not widely used in Italy, but which has huge potential and, like the high-speed train, does not “steal” work from trucks. Far from it...
A COMPARISON of the statistics concerning the methods used in Europe for transporting goods identified one that is practically absent in Italy: river transport. Of course, its geography doesn’t help. There are no wide, long and deep rivers like the Danube, Rhine or Elbe. Except one, the Po, which crosses the industrial heart of the country, almost like a natural motorway. How can it be put to more use? We asked Guido Piccoli, director of ALOT (the east Lombardy transport and logistics agency), a body set up by the provinces of Brescia, Bergamo, Mantua and Cremona with the aim of developing alternatives to road transport.
We’ll begin with the current situation: the navigable river network includes the Po River from Cremona to Porto Tolle (275 km), the River Mincio from Mantua to the Po (20 km), the Cremona-Pizzighettone canal (14 km), the Fissero-Tartaro-Canalbianco-Po di Levante canal (117 km), the Po-Brandolo-Laguna Veneta canal (19 km), the Po di Levante (19 km), the Laguna Veneta from Chioggia to Venice (30 km), the Ferrarese Waterway (Pontelagoscuro-Porto Garibaldi, 70 km) and the Aussa-Corno canal in Friuli, 4 km. A total of 568 km that include the inland ports of Cremona, Mantua, Rovigo, Boretto and Porto Nogaro. Not only: as Guido Piccoli emphasized, “connections between the navigable canals in the Po Valley and the Aussa-Corno canal in Friuli are guaranteed not only by the Laguna Veneta, but also by the internal waters on the landward side of the coastline classified by Law 16/2000 as the baseline”.
The Po is also navigable between Cremona and Piacenza (37 km), but barge traffic is blocked by the hydroelectric power plant dam at Isola Serafini. “An obstacle that will be surmountable with the construction of the new lock, which could guarantee another 37 km of navigable river. Whereas, in the future, the completion of the Cremona-Milan canal, which now stops at Pizzighettone, would be an important extension of the waterway system as far as Truccazzano and would serve the industrial areas in the Milan hinterland”.
Although network extension projects are galloping ahead, transporting goods by river has not taken off, on the contrary. The 774,000 tons in 2007 dropped to 386,000 in 2010. According to Piccoli, “the downturn is greater compared to that for land transport because river transport is more seriously affected by economic variables and the structural crisis concerns the production sectors that are historically linked to the waterway system, such as chemical and mining industries”. The goods that are now transported on the Po and canals are in fact hazardous materials and bulk goods. “The data show high concentrations of cereals and petroleum and chemical products. Exceptional transport is a good niche market and the transport of iron and steel products could be consolidated”. The strategic positions of Mantua, Cremona and Rovigo in the agricultural and food market makes the transport of cereals particularly important for the waterway system. But the new development is container transport: “A recent agreement between the Port Authorities of Venice and the Port of Mantua has created a line that is in operation for two days a week”.
However, we are a long way from the potential of these “river motorways”. What they lack most of all are certain infrastructures. According to Guido Piccoli, “The main critical factors concern the absence of infrastructures for direct exchanges between sea and river vessels and the regulation of river water levels, with the risk that navigation is impossible at certain times”. Impossible or reduced navigation that is “also caused by some bottlenecks”. In other words, narrower or lower stretches “in class IV which reduce the efficiency of class V stretches”. Specifically, the main projects for the future are: “Changing the Fissero-Tartaro-Canalbianco waterway from class IV to class V to allow the passage of barges of 1500 to 2000 tons; the upgrading of the Po River as far as Cremona to class V; the completion of the Milan-Po canal; and the open-sea platform off the Port of Venice”. All works that require considerable investment and drainage operations which, we can be sure, will be opposed by the environmentalists. Even though, something is moving: about to begin is the work on widening the Fissero-Tartaro-Canalbianco canal and, in particular, on raising the Canozio bridge at Sant’Apollinare (Rovigo) by 0.91 metres.
But the infrastructural deficit is not the whole story. “We also need measures”, Piccoli suggests. “With incentives for river navigation, a new regulatory framework and automatic locks, we could transport something in the region of 2.2 million tons of goods a year, equal to 5% of the trading between Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, with potential future demand of up to 6.4 million tons”.
And now we come to the question of demand: could investing in river transport contribute to removing trucks from the roads? And, above all, could the Po replace the motorway infrastructures that are being planned, like the Cremona-Mantua and the Nogara-mare? “The construction of these two motorways would not in any way influence the development of the waterway system. Over the years, the considerable presence of transport infrastructures has encouraged the establishment of important industrial groups behind the port areas. River traffic apart, the ports are true logistics platforms and could become important centres for road and rail traffic. In many cases, in fact, land and river transport is synergic: an example is the cereals that are unloaded from barges and loaded onto articulated trucks. In other cases, land transport is totally independent of the river transport system, such as the transport of chemical products at the Port of Mantua, which is exclusively by road and rail”.
According to the chairman of the association, “it is of fundamental importance to start up substantial modal transport that carries by rail and by water (the waterway system has potential for development from Milan to Trieste) the majority of the goods that are now transported by road. Greater development of the waterway system” – Piccoli concluded – “in the north of Italy would not in any way create serious problems for transport that is almost entirely by road; on the contrary, it would contribute to a series of social and territorial advantages for citizens, particularly in terms of savings in external costs (urban, nature and landscape, noise pollution, climate change, noise, accidents)”.