A Soviet-era railway line … Will it solve the global food crisis?

Rusty railway lines from Rini in the southwestern corner of Ukraine to the port of Galati in Romania – empty for decades and causing vegetation to grow randomly along the line – have long been part of the history of the Soviet era, and Europe’s quest to to open the door to millions of Ukrainian grain Idle in ports.

Although the railway line has lost about a quarter of its 20 kilometers in length, it is possible that the route along the Danube will eventually play a small role in the increasingly complex and large operation to ensure essential food shipments.

European leaders are desperately trying to figure out how to get grain from Ukraine, whose exports are usually greater than those of the entire European Union. Russia, which is accused by the United Nations of waging a war against global food security, said last week it would open sea lanes to open ports such as Odessa on the Black Sea if sanctions were lifted. But Ukraine said it was skeptical about security concerns.

With a difficult European effort to get Ukrainian grain out into the world and fill the food crisis, the task still seemed complicated on this small railway line, due to a shortage of truck drivers and the fact that the Soviets used a railway scale that wider than the European railway used. meters. The EU said it was causing delays of up to 30 days at the border for existing routes, where goods had to be transferred to train carriages compatible with Soviet railways, as well as goods piled up on customs platforms.

Meanwhile, ports in Romania and Poland are being strengthened to speed up traffic, while there is a shortage of specialized staff to cope with the increase in demand. Even with Ukrainian exports partially handled, trade officials warn that bottlenecks will worsen as the rest of Europe begins harvesting wheat next month.

Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat, maize and barley and leads the world sales of sunflower oil. It currently has 20 million tonnes of grain accumulated since last year.

ports of Ukraine

Ukraine expands export capacity on its western borders and simplifies trade arrangements with the European Union.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said on May 24 that the EU was working to bring what was stuck in Ukraine to world markets by opening “corridors” to European ports and to finance various means of transport. . The Ukrainian ambassador in Warsaw expects Poland to be a channel for 80% of Ukraine’s grain.

But people on the ground say it’s easier said than done when you look at a map, especially the rail network.

In Slovakia, the main traffic operator transported 18,000 tonnes of maize from Ukraine via 12 trains last month, but the problem is that consignments of Ukrainian wide-gauge wagons have to be reloaded on Euro-standard wagons or the whole container has to be on the wheels of European trains.

Poland, on the other hand, has a 400-kilometer-wide railway line connecting Ukraine with its southwestern industrial zone, Silesia. It has been used mainly in steel products, and in recent weeks to transport refugees.

In April, Poland and Ukraine also agreed to create a joint shipping company and simplify border rules. But with routes to Poland’s Baltic ports already overcrowded with a shortage of trucks, there are doubts whether Poland will soon be able to increase Ukrainian grain volumes to more than 2 million tonnes per month. That equates to 5 to 6 million tons shipped a month by Black Sea ports, said Roman Slaston, general manager of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Clubs Industry Group.

grain sheds

grain sheds

The railway line from Réni to Galati via Moldova will be a relatively small piece of the panorama, but it shows the extent of the challenge.

Currently, TTS, a Romanian company operating on the Danube and in the port of Constanta, is removing shrubs and small trees to open the road.

Romania is keen to upgrade Galati station to alleviate congestion in Constanta on the Black Sea. Prime Minister Nikolai Siuka said last month that the government wanted to speed up the construction of the missing 4.6km section and the work would take 3 months.

To illustrate the extent of the crisis, the Ukrainian Minister of Agriculture expects that another 30-40 million tons of grain will have to be exported after the harvest this summer and autumn. While the grain can be stored, farmers must sell it to get money to plant the 2023 crop.

At present, the most realistic solution remains Romania, Constanta and the Solina Canal, which connects the Black Sea with the Danube. The port’s customs agency has added staff to help deal with the surge in shipments as ships queue for access. Florin Guedia, director of ports, said the Romanian railway company had scrapped its connections with the ports and started work on improvements, which could lead to a 30% -40% increase in transport capacity as soon as next year.

“We expect larger quantities to arrive, this is just the beginning,” he said. “This summer will be very busy. It will not be easy for us, but we have to find solutions.”

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