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Yangtze set to become a 'highway on the water'

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New ship designs and dredging will open the river up to larger vessels.

China DailyUpdated: August 8, 2018

As the point at which two of the country's major transport routes-the north-to-south Beijing-Guangzhou rail line and the Yangtze River, which flows west to east-intersect, Wuhan holds a strategic position in the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt.

Yangluo port is the major cargo transport hub in Wuhan, Hubei province. Last year, it handled a record 1.36 million containers. [Photo/China Daily]

The belt covers 11 provinces and municipalities, including Hubei, Hunan, Shanghai and Chongqing.

Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, is taking its function as a major transport hub to a higher level by upgrading its port, building new container ships, and dredging the riverbed to accommodate huge vessels.

Water and rail

Crane operator Li Jianguo began working at a new container loading center in Yangluo Port, one of Wuhan's major facilities, earlier this year.

Every day at 7 am, the 40-year-old climbs up to his cabin on a gantry crane and begins loading cargo trains with containers that arrive from the dock 1 kilometer away.

"I used to load cargo onto trucks, and now I do trains," he said.

In the past year, the port has handled more than 1.3 million containers. Most of them were later dispatched to other locations via water or road.

"As more and more trains arrive, our work will become busier," Li said.

Among the 15,000 containers Li and his coworkers have dealt with this year, about 300 were loaded with Ikea furniture, shipped from Sweden, and later carried by rail to inland provinces such as Sichuan and Shaanxi.

Before, the furniture would have been transported by truck to a train station 60 km from the port and then sent inland. However, things have changed since the first water-rail logistics center at Yangluo Port started operations at the beginning of the year.

Containers are now loaded onto trains more quickly and at greatly reduced cost.

The new model fully utilizes water transportation along the Yangtze, which costs less than carrying goods by rail from Shanghai, where most international container ships dock.

"The water-rail logistical model will reduce costs by 30 percent compared with truck-train transportation," said Wang Ting, director of the operations and management department of Yangtze River New Silk Road International Logistics, which operates the center.

At present, the center handles 30,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers a year, but the company is planning an expansion that will add two more loading centers to the port's docks.

"With the completion of the second loading site, the port could handle 200,000 TEU containers a year using the water-rail model," Wang said.

She added that the ultimate goal is 4 million TEU containers, about 40 percent of the estimated number of containers that will arrive at the port by 2035.

Last year, Wuhan's ports handled more than 100 million metric tons of goods, a year-on-year rise of 11.3 percent, and the number of TEU containers reached 1.36 million, which was a record for the city.

New ship models

In addition to welcoming more trains in the near future, Yangluo Port is expected to see more large cargo ships docking as early as the latter half of next year.

Current models of seafaring vessels with displacements of 10,000 tons and higher usually dock at ports along the lower reaches of the Yangtze because the waterway gradually becomes more meandering and the colossal ships are unable to navigate the zigzagging turns.

For the past 15 years, Wu Weiguo, chief professor at Wuhan University of Technology, has been attempting to solve the problem by designing vessels that can be used on both rivers and seas.

The 58-year-old will see his brainchild become a reality when the first of four river and seagoing container ships he has designed embarks on her maiden voyage as early as August next year. The four vessels are currently under construction.

The first ship, with a displacement of more than 10,000 tons and able to carry 1,140 TEU containers, will be the largest container vessel capable of sailing along the Yangtze from Shanghai to Wuhan and also ply the coastal waters of the East China Sea, according to Wu.

The vessel will transport almost double the 580 containers carried by vessels that currently shuttle up and down the river.

"That requires the ship to have the both an oceangoing vessel's resistance to high waves and a river ship's maneuverability to deal with complicated water routes," Wu said.

Designing a 10,000-ton ship to meet that criterion is a complex engineering project, and Wu and his team started by learning from their Europeans counterparts, who have been building similar vessels for use on rivers such as the Rhine and the Volga.

In the past decade, Wu has sent dozens of his students and professors to universities in Germany and the Netherlands to study local ship models, and then adapt those designs to deal with the Yangtze's features, improving safety and making the ships more efficient.

"I feel happy that many buyers have ordered our ships because they think they are more cost effective," Wu said, adding that the buyers include major players such as China COSCO Shipping Corp, Huazhong Ship Group, and Sinotrans& CSC Holdings Co.

"We are also negotiating with buyers from Germany and Russia."

Dredging operation

In addition to ship design, another bottleneck for deep-draft vessels heading to Wuhan along the Yangtze are the shallow shoals along the middle reaches of the river, which mean large vessels can only sail upstream during the flood season, which normally lasts from July to August.

For vessels with a displacement of 10,000 tons, like Wu's, to pass safely, the water must be at least 6 meters deep. However, the depth on many stretches of the Yangtze downstream from Wuhan to Anqing, Anhui province, is 4.5 meters during winter.

That means the route is only suitable for vessels with a displacement of 5,000 tons, according to Tang Guanjun, director of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River Administration of Navigational Affairs.

The administration, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transport, oversees river transportation and coordinates waterway construction across several provinces along the Yangtze.

"If we can solve the problem of navigational depth, the Yangtze River route will become a 'highway on the water'," Tang said, quoted by the China Shipping website. "And Wuhan can play an important role in achieving that goal."

Project 645-the process of dredging the Yangtze to increase the depth of the waterway between Wuhan to Anqing to 6 meters, and to 4.5 meters from Wuhan to Yichang, a city upstream-is the key to the problem.

The project has been listed in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), the top social and economic development initiative issued by the State Council, China's Cabinet.

According to Wang Yanghong, director and Party chief of the Port and Shipping Administration Bureau of Hubei province, dredging work started on the first leg of the project, a 16-km stretch in Hubei's Qichun county, in November.

Meanwhile, work on the 12 other legs, running from Wuhan to Anqing, will start as early as October.

"The dredging of the Qichun leg will be finished by the end of 2019," Wang said.

"By 2020, when the whole project is completed, Wuhan will see 10,000-ton ships using its ports all year round."

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