With manufacturing and consumer demand moving steadily westward in China, that nation's rivers are fast becoming the mode of choice for transporting raw materials and finished goods. To reach fast-growing inland population centers like Chongqing and Wuhan, for example, the Yangtze River is the most efficient route, says consultant Jon Monroe, a respected observer of logistics in China.
As part of an ambitious infrastructure development plan, the Chinese government has been investing in container terminals on major rivers as well as docks for river barges at coastal ports like Shanghai, Monroe said at the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade (CONECT) Annual Northeast Trade & Transportation Conference in Newport, R.I. Those efforts already are showing results: In 2000, Chongqing (population: 30 million) handled zero ocean containers. In 2007, 230,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) passed through the city's new handling facilities, he said.
It's not just the government that's investing in river transportation. According to Monroe, Anheuser-Busch has built its own multimodal terminal on the Yangtze in Wuhan, and Maersk Line now operates dedicated barges to and from Shanghai.
The Yangtze may face some serious competition once a new Chongqing- Shanghai rail line and a new east-west highway are completed at the end of this year. But Monroe predicts that river transportation will still remain cost competitive, particularly once work on the Three Gorges Dam is finished, allowing larger barges to journey farther upriver.
To illustrate how far river transportation has come in the past quarter century, consultant Herb Rothstein displayed a photo he had taken in 1983 of a woman in a tiny boat piled high with loose cases of shoes, on a river near what is now the Port of Yantian. Today, Yantian is a bustling container port that handles some 10 million containers per year.