Adjustment of the navigation channel on the Lower and Outer Elbe

  • Hamburg is Germany’s largest seaport and as such an indispensable element of its logistics infrastructure. Around 9 million containers are handled annually in the Port of Hamburg. About one-third of these remain as local cargo in the Metropolitan Region, the remainder are transported throughout the Federal Republic and the European hinterland. Hamburg is accordingly of importance, not just nationally but throughout Europe. The Port of Hamburg is also a significant factor for the German national economy in creating jobs. Nationwide around 607,000 jobs depend on the port. The port-dependent industry generated some 1.53 billion euros in taxes within the Hamburg Metropolian Region. Germany-wide the industries dependent on the Port of Hamburg generate tax revenues of about 2.57 billion euros.

    The Port of Hamburg’s growth prospects remain absolutely positive. If its competitiveness is to be maintained and its extraordinarily good prospects for development fully exploited, it is essential that ever-larger ocean-going vessels – primarily containerships and bulk carriers – should be able to call the Port of Hamburg without forfeiting cargo or facing long delays. That makes the state of the expansion of the Port of Hamburg’s access from the sea of absolutely crucial importance.


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HHM / Dietmar Hasenpusch

Current state and target state

    • Vessel Draft

      Mega-containerships and bulk carriers deployed worldwide meanwhile have drafts that as a rule exceed the maximum at present permissible on the Lower and Outer Elbe. This applies especially to the containerships on the East Asia trade route that is of such importance for the Port of Hamburg.

      The table shows how ships can currently and in the future arrive at and leave the Port of Hamburg (based on a target vessel with 300 m length, 32 m width and 13.50 m draft).

    • Max. Draft, Current StateMax. Draft, Target State
      Arrive irrespective of the tide12,80 m13,80 m
      Leave irrespective of the tide12,80 m13,80 m
      Arrive depending on tide 15,10 m15,90 m
      Leave depending on tide13,80 m14,80 m
    • Current State

    • Target State

    Vessel Breadth

    • 'Passing Box'

      In places, widening the fairway is at least as important as deepening it. The growing number of mega-ships shows that depth limits are above all a commercial handicap for shipping companies that have to forfeit cargo to and from Hamburg. Restriction of ship’s widths constitutes a general nautical challenge: On the section before Hamburg, vessels with a combined breadth of more than 90 metres cannot pass in the fairway, which is around 300 metres wide.

    • The fairway will be widened to around 320 metres. Between Wedel and Wittenberg a ‘passing box’ will be added. Here,the fairway will be widened to 385 metres for a stretch of seven kilometres.

    HHM / Dietmar Hasenpusch

    Enlargement measures

    • Dredging

      The expansion measures for the navigation channel of the Lower and Outer Elbe basically consist of dredging of insufficiently deep sections of the navigation channel and a partial widening of the channel. About 40 percent of the navigation channel is already naturally adequate in depth. No dredging is required there. Adjustments of this kind, incidentally, are not a feature special to Hamburg, but the norm in conditions near the North Sea ports.

      The top goal of business in the port is that in future, irrespective of the tide, ocean-going vessels should be able to leave Hamburg with 13.50 metres draft and when using the flood tide, with 14.50 metres draft. To achieve that, the Elbe navigation channel in the German Bight is to be deepened from 16.98 to 19 metres, and from the junction of the North and South Elbe (river kilometre 626) to Container Terminal Altenwerder (river kilometre 619.5) from 16.70 to 17.40 metres.

    • Sediment management

      It is beyond dispute that large ships have an unbeatable CO2 balance compared to trucking and rail. Yet all that can only function if waterways are free. Therefore Hamburg,like most ports of the world,has to remove sediment from port basins and waterways. Background:The Elbe is a natural system constantly carrying along tons of sediment. This sediment reaches Hamburg from two different directions:from the North Sea with the flood tide and from the Upper Elbe with upstream water. This sediment deposits in flow-reduced areas of the tidal Elbe,such as the Port of Hamburg.

      To ensure the target depth of the navigation channel throughout and to enable ships to continue to reach their destination,every year Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) and the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration (WSV) shift several million cubic metres of sediment. The bulk of the material is harmless and can be put back in the water at a suitable place. Therefore Hamburg has two different options:at proven areas near “Tonne 3” (Buoy 3) at the North Sea and at island Neßsand in the River Elbe. A small part of the sediment from the upper reaches has attracted too many pollutants on its way to Hamburg and must be treated ashore and safely disposed of.

      The partners HPA and WSV have initiated a process of dialogue with neighbouring states,counties and district councils,fishery,tourism and water sports along the Lower Elbe as well as with environmental and commercial bodies on a new sediment management available in German language). Common developed results are the basis for a more sustainable sediment management. The intention is to reduce sediment volume and its contamination. In December 2016 the “Forum Tideelbe” (Forum Tidal Elbe) has been started – a new initiative of different stakeholders for the common sustainable development of the tidal river Elbe. The “Forum Tideelbe” builds on the solution approaches of the previous dialogue forum and has the goal to realize projects to shape the Lower Elbe in a natural way and thus to reduce the sediment volume in the direction of Hamburg. The main work steps of “Forum Tideelbe” as well as documents and intermediate results will be published on an own website,

    HHM / Hasenpusch: Megaboxer-Treffen auf der Elbe

    Ultra large container vessels

    • Development of ship sizes

      In an unprecedented sequence of developmental leaps, containerships have become larger and are still doing so. The reason for this is primarily commercial pressure: Fuel costs and stiff competition between shipping companies give an advantage to those able to transport containers at the lowest cost with the biggest ship.

      The world’s largest containerships are currently over 400 metres long and can transport over 20,000 TEU. And as shipping lines’ order books show, more and more giants are being added. Especially on the intercontinental trade routes between Europe and East Asia, enormous quantities of cargo make the deployment of ever larger ships pay. Hamburg is one of the most significant European destination ports for the trade in goods between Europe and China.

    • ULV calls in Hamburg

      Ship orders by shipping companies show that the proportion of containerships with maximum design drafts of 14.50 metres and more is growing disproportionately. This trend is confirmed by the rising number of calls by mega-containerships in the Port of Hamburg.

      Since the first calls in the port by vessels with a slot capacity of over 18,0 TEU,the total number of these has tripled. In 2017 Hamburg alone received 102 calls by ULCVs in the size bracket 18,0 to 20,000+TEU,a rise of 52.2 percent.

    • Adjustment of port infrastructure

      The Port of Hamburg is optimally prepared to handle extraordinarily large vessels, or ships with a length of more than 330 metres and/or a breadth of more than 45 metres, and is constantly adjusting its infrastructure to market requirements.

      For instance, the Port of Hamburg offers four high-performance container terminals that are among the world’s most modern and able to handle the largest containerships. In August 2016, for example, three additional container gantry cranes of the latest generation were delivered to HHLA Container Terminal Burchardkai (CTB), Hamburg’s largest container handling facility. Today HHLA has eight such gantry cranes at CTB. These enable CTB to clear vessels with a capacity of 20,000 TEU and rows of 24 containers at two berths. HHLA Container Terminal Tollerort is also receiving three additional container gantry cranes for handling mega-ships of the newest generation. From the end of 2017, CTT will be operating five container gantry cranes for clearing vessels with a capacity of 20,000 TEU and more.

      An additional example of the improvement of conditions for mega-ships calling in the Port of Hamburgs is the enlargement of the waterside access to HHLA Container Terminal Tollerort. With this, the feasible tide time-windows for arrival and sailing of mega-ships are extended. In addition, the turning circle for access to Waltershofer docks with CTB and Eurokai container terminals is being extended from 480 to 600 metres.

    • Background information

      • HMM Hamburg

        HMM Hamburg

        1 September 2020-With the first call of the "HMM HAMBURG" another ship of the so-called "Megamax-24 class" headed for the port of Hamburg.

      • Brussels Express

        Brussels Express

        24 June 2021-World’s first large container ship converted to LNG to arrive in Hamburg

      • MOL Triumph

        Megacarrier "MOL Triumph"

        15 May 2017-The container ship with a slot capacity of 20170 TEU is the first of a total of six identical ships.

    HHM / Wischhusen:Schützenswerte Lebensräume


    • Compensatory measures

      Compensatory measures

      Planning for the adjustment of the navigation channel and the integrated river engineering concept are to a great extent reducing adverse effects on nature and the environment. These will primarily be caused by the widening of the navigation channel and the underwater deposit area in the Outer Elbe. To compensate for this,along with the dredging of the navigation channel numerous ecological compensation measures will be implemented at a total cost of around 80 million euros. Areas will be re-naturized that have in recent decades been re-fashioned by humans. In the opinion of the Federal government and Hamburg,the negative effects of adjustment of the navigation channel will be wholly compensated for. After scrutinizing all the information,the European Commission also came to the conclusion that the adverse effects will be wholly offset by the planned compensatory measures,and in some cases over-compensated for.

      Independently of these project-related compensatory measures,the Lebensraum Elbe Foundation is making a substantial contribution towards the sustainable development of the tidal Elbe as the vital artery for the Hamburg Metropolitan Region. The City,Port and natural conservation bodies work together in the Foundation,set up in 2010,to improve the ecological condition of the Elbe. The Foundation is financed by a start-up capital of ten million euros and an annual subsidy consisting of five percent of the annual port dues received by Hamburg Port Authority (HPA). So the Foundation’s income is coupled directly with the development of the port.

    • A ship’s environmental balance sheet

      The Port of Hamburg lies around 145 kilometres from the Elbe estuary. Sailing along the Elbe prolongs the environment-friendly journey by water and saves costlier land transport runs. Transferring traffic from road to rail and waterways is also especially important in Germany in the light of the beleaguered situation of road traffic. Expansion of the Elbe as a federal waterway relieves road traffic and spares the environment.

    Begegnung von Cap San Lorenzo und Cap San Tainaro

    Elbe pilotage waters

      • Stretches a total of 145 kilometres/76 nautical miles from the port boundary to the Elbe estuary
      • Seagoing vessels sail with pilots on board throughout this area
      • Pilots advise along the entire route
      • Pilotage costs are based on gt (gross tonnage)
      • A berthing licence must be with the Nautische Zentrale (Vessel Traffic Centre) 24 hours before arrival in port
      • Pilots are mandatory for:All vessels over 90 metres long and/or 13 metres wide,tankers,any pushed or towed train of seagoing vessels with a length of over 90 metres and/or a max width of 13 metres,vessels up to 170 metres in length and with a draft below 8.50 metres may be exempted from the obligation to take on pilots

      Interesting links

      • Elbe Pilots www.elbe-pilot.en
      • Port Pilots
        Vessel traffic service centre
    • Nautical Terminal Coordination (NTC)

      The number of ultra-large vessels (ULV) calling the Port of Hamburg has been rising for years. These consist not only of containerships, but also bulkers and cruise ships. Such ships have a length of over 330 metres and/or a width of over 45 metres. With the Nautical Terminal Coordination (NTC), the Port of Hamburg possesses a facility addressing central operational coordination of calls by ULVs – long before these reach the Elbe pilotage waters. On approach, the progress of some vessels is even monitored from Gibraltar onwards.

      NTC’s tasks include cross-terminal operational coordination of prior planning, of approach control and of the departure planning for large vessels in the Port of Hamburg. The overall operational overview is coordinated 24/7 by the NTC as the central interface with the Nautische Zentrale (Vessel Traffic Centre) in Hamburg and the Elbe pilots. This involves combining communication channels and timely detection of side-effects of decisions relating to ULV clearance. Conflict situations are already spotted during the approach up the river and wherever possible eliminated. The goal is optimal traffic control on the Elbe and relief for the Nautische Zentrale (Vessel Traffic Centre).

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