Inland waterway shipping

Container transport

Containers in the Harbour of Rotterdam
Inland waterway shipping is very important for the processing of goods that enter the Netherlands. More than 35 percent of the goods that enter and leave the Netherlands are shipped by means of inland waterways shipping. In total, this equates to 1 million containers every year, totalling 9 million tonnes – i.e. 9000 kg per container. Except for the ordinary inland waterway goods, such as fodder, petrol, sand and gravel, nowadays more expensive goods are shipped. Examples are: electronic equipment, cars and even large trucks. Of all border-crossing transport between the Netherlands and its neighbours, almost two-thirds is via water. In larger countries, aviation will be dominant instead.

Inland waterways

The reason why inland waterway shipping is so common in the Netherlands, is because there is an extensive network of inland waterways. Besides the big rivers (Rhine, Maas and Scheldt) and channels, the Netherlands has a fine-meshed network of smaller waterways. The total length of all the Dutch rivers is 850 km, but there are 3750 km of channels and another 450 km of waterways in the Ijsselmeer and the Wadden Sea. Another reason inland waterway shipping is so popular is the geographically strategic position of the Netherlands within Europe. In the west, the Netherlands borders on the frequently sailed North Sea. In the east, it borders onto one of the largest European economies in the world, Germany. When the Rhine-Main channel was opened in 1993, the connection between the Dutch ports and the hinterland was improved once again.

Competition on the Rhine

The number of inland waterway navigation companies is decreasing, while the size of the remaining enterprises is increasing. Due to economies of scale, nowadays a company has both more and larger ships than in the past. With regards to the Rhine, almost 10,000 ships (with a combined weight of more than 10 million tons) navigated the river from an international perspective. This fleet of 10,000 ships consisted of 6,000 motor cargo ships, 1,700 cargo push tugs, 250 cargo tugboats, 1,000 motor tankers, 1000 tanker push tugs and 125 other ships. About one third of the ships are Dutch. Interestingly however, the Dutch share carries almost half of the total freight.


Together with the other Northern European countries, the Netherlands is part of a larger waterway network of approximately 25,000 km in length. The total size of the European inland waterway shipping is more than 400 million tons of cargo. The total weight of the products that companies want to have transported by inland waterway shipping is 400 million tons. A great deal of this is accounted for by ores and solid or liquid fuels. The ores and fuels are used in the industrial areas of Belgium and Germany (Ruhr area). From this point of view, the Netherlands is lucky in a geographical sense too.