European Water Levels Are so Low Carmakers Will Cut Back River Shipments

Ford is reducing cars shipped on river barges as the Rhine River runs low near plant in Cologne, Germany.

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Carmakers in Europe are monitoring low water levels in major rivers, which are making companies reduce shipments across the continent. In Germany, the Rhine River is at critically low levels below one meter, or 3.3 feet. Ford has already reduced the number of Ford Fiesta models shipped over the Rhine by 40 cars per vessel, and the automaker expects the number to increase because river levels keep getting lower, according to Automotive Logistics.

If low water levels persist, Ford will have to reduce the number of Ford Fiestas shipped out of its plant in Cologne by up to 125 cars per vessel. BLG Logistics operates five barges for the U.S. automaker, and each one usually carries 500 Fiestas. But Ford is considering cutting back on the number of cars per barge by up to 25 percent, and making up for it by increasing the number of trips.

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Photo: Oliver Berg (Getty Images)
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The Rhine River runs through France, Germany and the Netherlands, carrying about 200 million tons of goods per year, including cars from Ford and Mercedes-Benz. Weather conditions in the last few months are threatening the Rhine with a consistent lack of rainfall, less snowfall and high temperatures.

The summer dry spell has left the Rhine’s water level in Cologne consistently low: on August 12, the river was at 84 centimeters, or about 33 inches. If levels dip by another five inches or so, transporting the usual loads won’t be possible.

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The Rhine’s lowest level ever measured in Cologne was 69 centimeters, or 27.2 inches back in October of 2018. Auto Logistics says that just south of Cologne, in Kaub, the Rhine was at 42 centimeters, and could fall to 35 this week. That’s a historically low level of about 13.8 inches, and those levels could hit Cologne, too. Germany is considering suspending Rhine freight shipments altogether, which could last for months.

And rivers elsewhere in Europe are reportedly also seeing historically low levels. The Danube River is running dry in Romania and Bulgaria and is unable to ferry coal to maintain the regions’s power supply. In northern Italy, the Po River is dangerously shallow, putting Pininfarina and Ferrari on alert.

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Of course, coach builders and supercar companies rank low on the scale of companies impacted when rivers are unable to carry raw materials for power generation, and are so low nuclear power plants can’t get enough water to cool reactors — as in the case of both the Rhone and Garonne Rivers in France.

Experts say that lower water levels are normal between July and October, but the levels being recorded now are unusually low, and are affecting all of the industries that rely on Europe’s waterways, from cars to coal to passengers.

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