From Ukraine to the world through Belarus: a realistic option

A humanitarian corridor through Belarus for the export of grains from Ukraine to Baltic seaports as Klapeida is a realistic option that is currently being discussed, according to Lithuanian Transport and Communications Minister Marius Skuodis. Lithuania would definitely accept trains entering the country via this corridor, he was quoted as saying by news website Delfi.

The corridor is one of the options that would help transporting export products from Ukraine to Europe by rail, now that the ports of the country on the Black Sea are blocked. Since the Russian invasion, the country has been scrambling for alternative export routes and rail is the most likely option. However, the railway network is by far able to handle the large volumes. The route through Belarus would be the most efficient option.

Limited capacity

There has been an unprecedented interest in the transport of Ukrainian products by rail, but so far, the capacity of the network has not been able to meet the demand. The willingness is there, but the capacity of sea-going vessels is incomparable with that of a train.

Moreover, there are other factors complicating a transit through Poland to Klapeida, to name an example. “A train would need to switch gauge twice; once when getting into Poland, and once again when entering Lithuania”, an industry expert in Ukraine explained. The corridor through Poland to Klapeida would allow for 2 to 3 trains per day, the minister was cited.

50 million tonnes

Before the war started, Ukraine exported about 50 million tons of grain a year. “We are aware that Ukraine’s further export potential depends on the railway, so we are making every effort to reorient exports to the EU and Bessarabia, where there are two ports”, chairman of the Board of Ukrainian Railways Alexander Kamyshin said.

“Ukrainian Railways is ready to reorient transportation from the ports of southern Ukraine to western crossings with EU countries. Unfortunately, the neighboring countries were not ready for such volumes, but the work is ongoing and the volumes will increase”, he added.

Belarusian corridor

The corridor through Belarus would take away at least one of the hurdles on the Polish network. Belarus has a broad gauge line, so trains do not necessarily need to make a gauge switch. This would make the journey more efficient, and allow for more trains to run on the network.

There is however another dilemma. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, relations between Belarus and its European neighbours have deteriorated. Belarus has banned trains to and from Lithuania carrying fertilisers and oil products, in response to the termination on the Lithuanian part of the rail contract of Belrausian fertilisers. Latvia terminated the shipment of military cargo destined for Belarus through its territory. Not unimportantly, Belarus is subject to a list of EU sanctions.

Option on the table

Nevertheless, the option of a humanitarian corridor is on the table. This was encouraged by the willingness of the Baltic seaports to accept Ukrainian grain, and take up the role of gateway to the rest of the world for the much-needed commodity.

“The port of Klaipeda is capable of handling fairly large amounts, some 8 million tons, excluding the Biriu Kroviniu Terminalas (Bulk Cargo Terminal), and with investment into capacity, this could be increased”, Delfi quoted the Lithuanian minister. A pilot train was already launched by Lithuanian Railways.

Stakes too high

Although the corridor will need the backing of all parties involved, it has a good chance of being realised, for the simple reason that the stakes are too high. Since the start of the season, farmers have so far planted about 34.9 million acres of spring wheat, spring barley, canola, oats, sunflower, soybeans, potatoes and other crops, the website agri-pulse reports.

This is in addition to the crops that were already reaped, and the contracts that were already made before the war started. These transports need to be carried out regardless, as the silo’s and warehouses are full, and businesses have counted on the export.

Gradual increase of rail freight

According to Ukrainian Railways, the transport by rail has picked up in recent months. In May, it transported 300-310 thousand tons of cargo per day, which is about 40 per cent of the pre-war figure.

Before the war the railway compnay loaded an average of 700 thousand tons of cargo per day. In the first days of the war, this figure dropped to 150 thousand tons. Already in March it was possible to load 250 thousand tons per day, in April – 295 thousand tons, and from the beginning of May – 300-310 thousand tons.

The greatest growth is recorded in grain transportation – plus 86 per cent. In addition, the figures for transportation of construction materials have doubled, Ukrainian Railways reports. Apart from the corridor through Poland and Belarus, rail transport is carried out via Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is the editor-in-chief of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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