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Building a Bridge to Ease Shipping Woes

An ambitious canal project in Germany begun in the 1930s and stalled by World War II, is on its way to completion. The massive canal bridge over the Elbe River will form a vital waterway link between Hanover and Berlin.


Direct and unhindered access to ships in the future - the huge canal bridge at the mouth to Magdeburg

Gigantic is the word frequently used to describe the bridge rising over the Elbe River near the northeastern German city of Magdeburg.

Indeed, at a height of 918 metres and a width of some 32 metres, the canal bridge that will encircle the Elbe at the river town of Hohenwarthe promises to be the largest of its kind in Europe.

Once completed in autumn 2003, the canal bridge will form an essential element of the waterway which extends from Hanover to Berlin via Magdeburg.

One big detour

More importantly, it will allow barges unhindered and quick travel access across the Elbe River along the one-kilometre-long canal bridge.

The shipping channel between the Mitteland canal and the Elbe-Havel on either side of Magdeburg, is one of the busiest waterways in Europe. Just five years ago, some six million tonnes of goods were transported on the Mittelland canal and four million tonnes on the Elbe-Havel canal a year. Annual forecasts for 2010 are 33 million tonnes and 19 million tonnes repectively.

A large network of waterways criss-crosses Germany from west to east and links the Rhine River with the Ems, the Elbe and the Oder. Presently, inland ships travelling along the Rhine River towards the German capital have to make huge detours before they can head in the direction of Berlin.

They have to leave the Mittelland canal at Magdeburg, descend to the Elbe River via the Rothensee ship lift and then travel a further 12 kilometres down the Elbe. Only after traversing the Niegripp lock can they reach the Elbe-Havel canal and continue their journey towards Berlin.

Bridge a solution to ship traffic problems

Experts say that the whole process is not just time consuming, but also costly. The detours add an extra 12 kilometres to the route and, worse yet, the Rothensee ship lift is not equipped for today’s large motor cargo vessels that are much larger than the lift's maximum capacity of 82 metres.

The problem is further compounded by the Elbe's fluctuating water levels and protracted periods of low water. This often impairs the flow of goods and, especially in hot summer months, ship traffic is often brought to a standstill.

The projects planners hope the new canal bridge will eliminate with these problems by creating a direct connection between the Mittelland canal and the Elbe-Havel canal which will be unaffected by the Elbe's dramatic water-level fluctuations.

Additionally, a new water-saving lock system is being built to the west of the existing Rothensee ship lift to make the link accessible to large-engined goods ships and boat trains. A further double lock will also make up the eastern end of the Mittelland canal and Sulfeld-Hohenwarthe.

Canal project forgotten after war

Though the building of the canal bridge was kicked off in 1998, the plans for it are anything but new. The idea of building a large canal bridge to plug the last remaining gap between the waterways linking the Rhine in the west and the Oder in the east was floated as far back as in the 1930s.

But then World War II intervened and construction, which began in 1934, was abruptly broken off. The communist government in East Germany, which wasn’t particularly enthused about promoting a east-west waterway, ignored the half-constructed project.

A boost for Magdeburg

After German reunification in 1990, the federal government included the incomplete canal bridge construction among 16 other so-called "Transport projects of German Unity", with which it aimed to create modern and environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure in the former communist eastern states and link them to western Germany.

The canal bridge project with its accompanying water-saving lock systems is estimated to cost a record 2.3 billion euro. Apart from improving the waterway link from Hanover to Berlin, Magdeburg is also expected to benefit from the bridge.

With direct access from the Mittelland canal to the Magdeburg harbour, the city hopes to develop into a prominent inland port in Europe and a commercial hub for goods transportation.

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