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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov visit a sea port before restarting grain export, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine July 29, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
by John Konrad (gCaptain) As the conflict in Ukraine intensifies, it has sent shockwaves through the global grain market, triggering a crisis that reverberates far beyond its borders. The abrupt termination of the UN Grain deal by Russia, a safety net for grain ships navigating the volatile Black Sea, has ignited a flurry of speculation about alternative means to export Ukraine’s grain. From news pundits to government officials, suggestions have been flying thick and fast – planes, trains, and automobiles have all been touted as potential saviors. In a notable move, Croatia has gallantly offered its rail network and Adriatic Sea ports as alternative routes for Ukrainian grain exports. This proposal, made during a U.N. General Assembly session on July 18, is a commendable gesture. However, it’s akin to a drop in the ocean, given the scale of the challenge. Each proposed mode of transport comes with its own unique, and often significant, set of challenges.
The question remains: Can these alternatives truly replace the efficiency and capacity of maritime transport? Let’s delve deeper into this pressing issue but first a spoiler alert: no form of transport can replace massively large and efficient ships.
Firstly, the idea of using planes to transport grain is simply impossible. The entire cargo lifting capacity of the entire US Air Force is smaller than the cargo capacity of a single modern ultra-large containership. Furthermore, planes are energy-intensive, burning over 100 times the fuel per ton-mile compared to ships. The fuel cost alone would exceed the value of the grain itself.
This option is wholly unviable and is simply not worth more time explaining but, unfortunately, it must be mentioned because the idea of using planes is sticky. It’s sticky in Europe because of the resounding success of the Berlin Airlift has led many to believe that planes can transport vast amounts of food. But during the Berlin Airlift, planes only had to travel short distances and it took over 275,000 flights over the course of 11 months to move just 2.3 million tons of cargo. Ukraine needs to move this much grain each and every month. The government has said that Ukraine could harvest about 51 million tons of grain this year (down from a record 86 million tonnes in 2021) so that’s over 22 Berlin Airlifts. And that’s not accounting for fuel, the long distances would require them to refuel aircraft in Ukraine, and getting vast amounts of aviation fuel into the country would be a monumental task.
Trucks, while more energy-efficient than planes, still burn 10 times the fuel per ton-mile compared to ships. Ukraine needs to make a profit both to fund the war and to purchase fertilizer and seed for the next harvest and the fuel use of trucks – especially over long distances and across elevated terrain – means that Ukraine would lose money using this option.
Then there is the problem of cargo capacity. Large trucks can carry roughly 25 tons of cargo. Since the start of the war Ukraine’s ports have exported roughly 39.2 million tons so a staggering number of roundtrip truck deliveries – over 1.5 million – would have been required to move that much grain.
Trucks are also small and labor-intensive operations, requiring one driver or two drivers on these long haul routes for every truck versus less than 24 people to crew an entire ship.
Trains present their own set of challenges. They typically burn three times as much fuel per ton-miles as ships making the economics of using them for grain transport circumspect. The railway gauge in Ukraine, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union, is about 10 centimeters wider than the ones typically used across Europe. That means once the Ukrainian train hits the border with, say, Poland, grain has to be reloaded onto different trains, or the freight wagons have to be placed onto a train with a narrower base. This, of course, is very complicated, very costly, and very time-intensive. Bouda said the backlogs make it hard to find available train cars.
“The volume, it cannot be processed just by sending grains by railway,” said Arthur Nitsevych, a partner a Ukrainian transportation law firm, in an interview with Vox last year. “There are bottlenecks on the railway on the crossroads between Ukraine and the European countries, and there is a lack of infrastructure, lack of terminals, there is a lack of wagons, locomotives. So everybody is doing their best, but it seems it’s not possible.” We agree, and the numbers are staggering. The Black Sea Grain Initiative has allowed three Ukrainian ports to export 32.9 million metric tons of grain and other food to the world, according to the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul. Standard train cars carry roughly 100 tons so a staggering 320,900 trains would have been required to move that much grain.
Moving the grain is not as simple as it would be in North America or Western Europe. The Ukrainian grain hopper car fleet is relatively limited in size, because most exports previously were by sea, and are built for 5-foot gauge track standard to the former Soviet Union. Once these cars get to the border with neighboring EU countries, the grain has to be transferred to standard-gauge cars. In some cases, their trucks can be changed from 5-foot to standard gauge — but as most Ukrainian grain cars are physically bigger than their Western European equivalents, they cannot travel very far into the standard-gauge EU network before encountering restrictions.
To address the problem caused by a change in gauge at the border, movement by container has been tried, with containers fitted with special bags or liners inside to hold the grain. This makes the transshipment process at the border simpler, but loading that much grain in bags is a time-consuming process. This was tried as containers are swapped from 5-foot gauge cars to standard-gauge ones. A shortage of 5-foot container flat cars initially held back the program, but UZ has at least partially overcome this by buying cars built since the invasion by Ukrainian companies.
The last option is a hybrid approach with trains moving grain just to marine export terminals in Romania. Two more lines have been rebuilt in Ukraine to the Romanian border this summer, but more needs to be done on the other side of the border. Alexander Kamyshin, CEO of Ukrainian Railways, even went as far as posting on Twitter a map showing these lines and asking the Romanian government to act, although nothing is currently planned. Kamyshin says that increasing the number of rail border crossings between the two countries could allow at least 3.5 million more tons of freight to be moved by rail but that number still falls far short of the export requirement.
Another potential solution that has been proposed is exporting Ukraine’s grain via the Danube River. This river is one of the best in the world and connects western Ukraine to some of Europe’s msot important waterways including the Rhine. River transport offers several advantages that could potentially address some of the challenges faced by other modes of transport. For one, it is nearly as fuel and cost-efficient as maritime shipping, making it a more economically viable option compared to planes or trucks. Furthermore, river transport avoids some of the logistical issues associated with rail and road transport, such as gauge differences and border crossings.
However, while river transport may seem like an attractive alternative, it is not without its limitations. The capacity of the Danube River to handle the volume of grain that Ukraine needs to export is significantly less than that of the bulk carriers operating in the Black Sea. Simply put, the Danube River cannot accommodate the same amount of grain as the Black Sea route.
The number of grain barges required could cause traffic jams along the river. Moreover, the infrastructure along the Danube is not equipped to handle such a large volume of grain. Experts are not certain there are enough storage and trans-shipment facilities to load millions of tons of grain into larger vessels at the end of the Rhine. This would mean that even if the grain could be transported down the river, there would be significant bottlenecks when it comes to loading the grain onto ships for further transport.
In conclusion, while river transport via the Danube offers many advantages, it is not a panacea for the challenges facing Ukraine’s grain exports. The limitations in capacity, infrastructure, and water levels mean that it cannot fully replace the role of maritime shipping in the Black Sea.
Time is a critical factor in grain transportation due to the risk of spoilage. Grains are perishable commodities and their quality can degrade over time, especially under unfavorable conditions. The longer the grains are in transit, the higher the risk of exposure to factors such as moisture, heat, and pests, all of which can lead to spoilage.
Moreover, delays in transportation can disrupt the supply chain, causing grains to be stored for extended periods in conditions that may not be optimal for preservation. This can lead to losses not only in terms of quantity – through physical loss of grains – but also in terms of quality, as grains that have deteriorated due to prolonged storage may fetch lower prices in the market. Therefore, efficient and timely transportation is crucial to maintain the quality of the grains, minimize losses, and ensure profitability for farmers.
Further, the longer grain stays in silos within the war zone, the more opportunity Russia has to target these vast stores.
While it may seem like ships, which can take a few days to load an entire ship’s worth of grain, are slow that’s only because of the immense quantities of grain they transport. Ships do travel slower than planes, trains, and trucks but they do not slow down for traffic, rail maintenance or stop for border inspections.
Other Land Transportation Concerns
There are also serious political and economic concerns with air and land routes. Air is vulnerable to Russian missiles and land has problems too. And on Wednesday five European Union countries announced they will extend their ban on Ukrainian grain to protect their farmers’ interests but food can still move through their land to parts of the world in need after Russia pulled out of a deal safeguarding Black Sea shipments.
The ministers of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria signed a joint declaration ahead of EU discussions on the matter planned next week in Brussels. The declaration said they support continuing to allow Ukraine’s grain to move through their borders by road, rail, and river to destinations where it is needed but will keep the import ban to their countries through 2023.
In response to land shipments, EU President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that it was “important that the blocking of the Black Sea is stopped” and that exports can continue via that route.
Bulkers – as grain ships are called in the shipping industry – are simply colossal structures, specifically designed to transport vast quantities of grain across the world’s oceans. These vessels can be up to 300 meters long and 50 meters wide, with a carrying capacity of up to 100,000 metric tons of grain. This is equivalent to the cargo of about 2,500 large semi-truck trailers or 1,000 rail cars. While Ukraine has mostly relied on smaller ships to move grain, the sheer size of even moderately sized ships today ships allows for economies of scale, making them an incredibly efficient means of transporting grain. They consume significantly less fuel per ton-mile compared to other modes of transport, such as trucks or planes. For instance, a grain-bulker ship can move one ton of grain about 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel, while a truck would only manage about 59 miles, and a plane would cover a mere 6.5 miles. This “ton-mile” efficiency not only reduces transportation costs but also minimizes the environmental impact, making grain bulkers the preferred choice for long-distance, large-scale grain transportation.
The Biggest Cost Of All
Perhaps the most significant cost of all is the expenditure of diplomatic capital, time, military security, and global attention on alternative transport methods that disregard the simple physics and insurmountable economic costs of land or air transport. Time is of the essence, and the diversion of resources towards less efficient solutions carries a massive opportunity cost. The world’s focus should be on the only rational and viable solution: ensuring the safety of grain-carrying ships from potential Russian attacks. Every moment spent on exploring impractical alternatives is a moment lost in fortifying the security of these maritime routes.
In conclusion, the crisis in Ukraine has underscored the critical role of maritime transport in the global grain trade. The challenges associated with alternative modes of transport – planes, trucks, and trains – highlight the unparalleled efficiency and capacity of grain bulk carrier ships. These colossal vessels, capable of transporting tens of thousands of tons of grain per trip, offer economies of scale that simply cannot be matched by other means of transport. Their fuel efficiency and environmental impact are significantly lower, making them the most sustainable and cost-effective solution for long-distance, large-scale grain transportation.
And cost is a major consideration when fertilizer, seed, and tractor fuel need to be purchased to plant future crops, and every extra penny of profit is needed to support the war effort.
Moreover, the perishable nature of grain adds another layer of complexity to the issue. The longer the transit time, the higher the risk of spoilage, leading to potential losses in both quantity and quality. This further underscores the importance of efficient and timely transportation, a feat best achieved by grain bulkers.
The current situation in Ukraine is a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of our global supply chains and the importance of maintaining safe and efficient maritime routes. As the world grapples with the fallout of the conflict, it is clear that the solution to Ukraine’s grain export challenge lies not in planes, trains, or automobiles, but in the vast and efficient network of maritime trade routes. It is a call to action for the international community to work towards ensuring the safety and viability of these routes, for the sake of global food security and economic stability.
But the greatest cost lies in the diversion of diplomatic resources, time, and global attention towards less efficient transport alternatives, when the world needs to sharply focus on the only viable solution: protecting grain ships from Russian attacks. This does not mean that other means should be abandoned entirely – every bag of grain moved out of the warzone helps – but it does mean that we must not waste excessive resources and diplomatic capital on stop-gap solutions.
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