Europe is wrestling with a problem not much larger than the length of a standard HB pencil as it struggles to get an estimated 20 million tonnes of grain out of Ukrainian silos and into countries teetering on the edge of famine.
With Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blockaded by the Russian navy, shipments of wheat, maize, sunflower seeds and other crops are being delayed for up to 30 days at the country’s land borders as it shifts its exports to rail.
One of the most significant obstacles on these routes is the 85mm that separates the Ukrainian gauge from that of its western neighbours, a hangover from the Soviet era. This means the cargo has to be reloaded on to European standard-gauge wagons at the border, leading to queues of as many as 10,000 carriages at some of the busiest crossings.
Time is running out for everyone involved. The UN has warned of an impending global food crisis that may last for years as the war cuts off the flow of cereals, fertilisers and animal feed from Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine alone normally produces enough food to feed 400 million people. The abrupt halt to its exports has helped to drive up prices of staples such as flour and cooking oil, as well as threatening several states in north Africa and the Middle East with acute food shortages.
Yesterday Rüdiger von Fritsch, who served as Germany’s ambassador to Moscow from 2014 to 2019, claimed that this was a deliberate strategy on President Putin’s part to drive a fresh wave of migration into Europe.
“Putin’s calculation is that after the grain deliveries collapse the hungry people will flee these regions and try to come to Europe, like the millions of Syrians who [in the mid-2010s] fled the horrors of war,” Von Fritsch told Der Tagesspiegel.
For Kyiv the grain is also an irreplaceable source of revenue, typically bringing in about £15 billion a year, or about a third of the country’s annual income from exports. The government needs about £5 billion a month to stay afloat and Ukraine’s economic output is forecast to shrink by more than a third this year, underscoring its pressing need for foreign currency.
Ukraine has until July to clear about 15 million tonnes of maize and 6.5 million of wheat out of its storage facilities to make space for this year’s harvest. Since the ports that would normally handle 80 per cent of this trade have been choked off and road haulage capacity is limited, much of it must leave the country by rail.
This is, in the words of Adina Valean, the European Union’s Romanian transport commissioner, a “gigantic challenge”.
For a start, the dozen or so railway border crossings capable of transferring the grain have been operating at their limits, especially in the case of the biggest of these facilities, at Izov on the Polish frontier.
At times there have been a total of more than 25,000 wagons backed up on the Ukrainian side of the border, according to data from the national railway operator. Henryk Kowalczyk, the Polish agriculture minister, said there was too little capacity in the system. “We have to reload [the cargo] or re-set the railway wagons, so it’s a bottleneck,” he told Polish radio.
Then there is the question of what to do with the grain once it arrives in the EU. Some is transported north to Poland’s Baltic sea ports, including Gdansk and Gdynia. Another 60,000 tonnes a month passes along a circuitous “green corridor” running through Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany, ultimately arriving in Brake, a north German river port specialising in cereals.
The European Commission is setting up what it calls “solidarity lanes” to ease the blockages on the Ukrainian borders, matchmaking spare rolling stock and lorries with outbound shipments from Ukraine, and giving cereals and animal feed priority over other exports.
In the long term its aim is to fund new railway links to Ukraine as a way of binding the country more closely to the EU and contributing to its reconstruction. Yet such is the scale and urgency of the task that other, more ambitious routes are coming into play. Romania has begun repairing an old Soviet broad-gauge railway line from Giurgiulesti in Moldova to the Danube river port of Galati. In theory this could allow exports to travel on the same wagons all the way from Ukraine to the Black Sea.
The G7 has recently looked at using the ports in the three Baltic states, such as Klaipeda in Lithuania. One proposal involved drafting in a fleet of 10,000 lorries to run a five-day shuttle service between Ukraine and the Black or Baltic seas. This month Marius Skuodis, the Lithuanian transport minister, said that negotiations were under way on a “humanitarian corridor” to take the grain to the Baltic by way of Belarus, meaning it could make the entire journey on old Soviet-gauge railways.