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New grain export logistics for Ukraine: Options and opportunities

Dry cargo ships on the Danube. Photo: Nathan Lane/Bloomberg

Dry cargo ships on the Danube. Photo: Nathan Lane/Bloomberg

The Cabinet of Ministers is negotiating with international partners to lift the blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Possible options include military convoys to escort grain carriers or providing Ukraine with a sufficient amount of anti-ship weapons. This was stated by First Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy Taras Vysotskyi on TV on May 30.

He noted the importance of measures to unblock the Ukrainian export infrastructure in the next few weeks, until the food crisis intensified in the world. Vysotskyi also noted the insufficient capacity of alternative grain export routes compared to the Black Sea ports.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine exported up to 5 million tons of agricultural raw materials monthly through the ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv. Now, over their naval blockade, no more than 1 million tons of grain can be exported.

What alternative routes for grain exports are

The challenge of resuming grain exports from Ukraine is forcing politicians to consider options ranging from naval escort to transporting grain overland to the Baltic Sea. Experts say they are exploring maps for solutions, such as redirecting road traffic and restoring rail links to the Romanian port of Galati on the Danube, according to an article published by Bloomberg.

The task is complicated by a dearth of truck drivers and different railway gauges in Ukraine and EU countries. Due to the latter factor and the congestion of the customs infrastructure, wagons can stand idle at the border for up to 30 days, waiting for their turn to reload grain.

Southern Trade Corridor of Ukraine

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Ports in Romania and Poland are also backed up with traffic or already at capacity while there are shortages of specialized personnel to handle the surge in demand. Officials warn that bottlenecks will get worse as Europe starts harvesting its wheat next month.

"The scale of the problem is enormous," Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Economy, said. "In the last 15 years, we developed our infrastructure in a way that it cannot be simply replaced by another destination, another port."

Ukraine is expanding export capacity at its western border and simplifying trade arrangements with the EU. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on May 24 the EU was working to get what’s stuck in Ukraine to global markets by opening "solidarity lanes" to European ports as well as financing different modes of transportation. Ukraine’s ambassador to Warsaw expects Poland to be the conduit for 80% of Ukrainian grain. But people on the ground say that’s easier said than done.

Route through Slovakia

In Slovakia, the main traffic operator transported 18,000 tons of corn from Ukraine last month across 12 trains, and private freight companies that reloaded the wagons are also involved.

Route through Poland

Poland has a 400-kilometer broad-gauge railway linking Ukraine with Silesia. It’s been used mainly for steel products, and in recent weeks to carry refugees. State railway network operator PLK SA has started investing in boosting capacity, reversing its earlier focus on connections as far as China via Belarus.

In April, Poland and Ukraine also agreed to create a joint cargo company and simplify border rules. But with routes to Poland’s Baltic ports already busy and a shortage of wagons, there are doubts over whether Poland can boost volumes of Ukrainian grain much above 2 million tons a month anytime soon.

Route through Romania

The railway line from Ukrainian Reni to Romanian Galati via Moldova would be a relatively small piece of the jigsaw, but it illustrates the enormity of the challenge, Bloomberg writes.

TTS, a Romanian company that operates on the Danube and in the port of Constanta, has been working on opening up the route.

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Romania is keen to upgrade Galati to ease congestion at Constanta port on the Black Sea. Galati is connected by the broad-gauge railway with Ukraine. The government wants to fast-track the construction of the missing section of 4.6 kilometers and the work will take three months, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said in April.

However, it’s still unclear who will do it, according to TTS. At the moment, three countries and three different railway operators are involved in delivering Ukrainian grain. Romania’s transport minister said he hopes to find a company to build the missing portion of track in the coming days.

"Ukraine was exporting 20 million tons of metals per year and even more grains only on water, so to think that it would be possible to completely replace these capacities is a dream," said Petru Stefanut, TTS’s CEO. "What we’re all trying to do is to help them as much as we can. But we can’t compare what they had and what they’ve lost."

TTS has managed to transport about 200,000 tons of grains and metals from Ukraine in the past two months. Stefanut is confident more will come as routing via the Danube becomes more efficient.

Kees Huizinga, a Dutch farmer who lives in Ukraine and employs 400 people, used to be able to get a 25-ton truckload of his grain to Odesa terminals on the Black Sea and back within a day. His drivers are now spending a week in travel, queues and border checks to take deliveries on a new route, unloading just over the border in Romania. From there, it still needs to weave to its final destination. The cost of logistics for Huizing has now tripled.

The EU has exempted grain imports from requiring veterinary or phytosanitary certificates to ease the transit. But in the three weeks to mid-May, Huizinga had only shipped out 150 tons. Normally, that would load in just a few hours. He worries that once Romania begins its own harvest soon, the logjams could worsen.

"It’ll be a disaster," Huizinga, who farms 15,000 hectares and milks 2,000 dairy cows 200 kilometers south of the capital, Kyiv, said.

Route through Lithuania

Lithuania could handle some 8 million tons a year via its Klaipeda port on the Baltic, though can only manage to get 1 million tons via Polish railways, according to the country’s transport minister. A trial rail shipment of agricultural goods from Ukraine took three weeks.

"Alternatives to Odesa simply don’t exist to send the amounts of grain that Ukraine has accumulated and will accumulate over the summer," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said. "We either need to accept that grain will be rotting, a part of the world will face food shortages, prices will rise, or we need to find ways how to unblock Odesa."

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Experts believe that at the moment, Romania, Constanta, and the Sulina Canal that links the Black Sea with the Danube, remain the most realistic solution, Bloomberg writes. The port’s customs agency has added staff to help handle the increase in shipments, with ships lining up to enter the Canal. The Romanian railway company has decluttered its port links and started improvement works, which may result in a 30% to 40% increase of transport capacity as soon as next year, port manager Florin Goidea said.

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