River Transport

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

River Transport


a type of transportation that moves passengers and cargo primarily by internal waterways, both natural, including rivers and lakes, and man-made, including canals, reservoirs, and lock sections on rivers. River routes are subdivided into mainline, interregional, and local. Mainline routes include international routes and are used in foreign trade shipping by several countries; examples are the Danube, Oder, Rhine, Amur, Paraguay, and Niger rivers. Interregional routes facilitate shipping between major regions within a country; examples are the Volga, Yangtze, and Mississippi rivers. Local routes are used for intraregional links.

Despite the fact that it operates seasonally in many countries, river transport has numerous advantages in comparison with other types of transportation. Initial expenditures to organize navigation on large rivers are eight to ten times less than corresponding expenditures to establish railroads. The prime cost of shipping on mainline rivers is 35 percent lower than rail shipping and 67 to 80 percent less than shipping by motor vehicle.

River-transport vessels are subdivided by purpose into transport, technical, and auxiliary vessels. Transport vessels include passenger ships, dry-cargo ships, tankers, push boats, and tugboats. The passenger fleet has local and transit vessels. Dry-cargo vessels with cargo holds have large openings in their decks that facilitate loading and unloading. Dry-cargo vessels on which cargo is shipped directly on deck (flat barges) are designed for transporting any cargo that does not have to be kept dry, primarily mineral construction materials, such as sand, crushed stone, and gravel. Tankers carry liquid cargoes, such as petroleum and petroleum products, in bulk in the holds and in tanks located on deck. Since 1968, combination petroleum-ore vessels have been used, which are loaded with petroleum in one direction and bulk cargo in the other.

The technical fleet includes dredging equipment and vessels for performing various types of channel work. Auxiliary vessels include landing stages, quarter boats, storeships, repair vessels, ferries, floating cranes, sand and gravel dredges, and harbor, service, and auxiliary vessels. Icebreakers facilitate the operation of vessels in ice conditions and are especially important in river transport.

River vessels may be self-propelled or not. Self-propelled ships are divided by engine type into those powered by steam, diesel, and diesel-electric engines. They are divided by the type of propulsion device used into screw-propeller, paddle-wheel, jet-propeller, and air-cushion vessels. Barges, lighters, large rowboats, and other vessels are not self-propelled. In many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, junks and other small sailing and oared vessels are used on rivers.

People have used rivers for travel since ancient times. Rowing and sailing vessels were used in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China thousands of years before the Common Era. From the 12th to the 14th century, with the development of medieval cities, which were located on the rivers of Europe, and with the development of trade, shipping by water routes in vessels with capacities of 10 to 20 tons increased. Navigation was significantly improved by the construction of locks on river routes (16th century). The use of steam engines (early 19th century) on ships played an important role in the further development of river transport and in reducing the cost of river shipping.

River navigation in Russia has a history of many centuries. The ancient Slavs primarily settled along rivers and lakes, which were convenient natural communication routes. In the ninth century, the Slavs were already using river vessels for trade along the Don and Volga rivers and on the Caspian Sea. Caravans of vessels traveled along the Volkhov-Dnieper route, which connected the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea (the great route “from the Varangians to the Greeks”). The size of the vessels sailing the Russian rivers grew, and in the 16th century the cargo capacity of river vessels on the Volga reached 250 to 300 tons. There was a qualitative improvement in the river fleet during the reign of Peter I (late 17th and the early 18th century), who encouraged the development of shipbuilding. Instead of vessels designed for a single trip, construction of durable vessels using sawn boards began. These ships were well constructed and had good sailing characteristics. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the first man-made water systems were built at the locations of former portages: the Vyshnii Volokchek (1708), Tikhvin (1811), and Mariinskaia (1810) water systems.

In Russia, metal was first used in the construction of river vessels in the early 19th century. This coincided with the use of engines on ships. Until the introduction of engines in steamships and in the initial period of their use (1840–80), ships were moved on the rivers, especially the Volga, using horse and manual traction. The construction of steamships began in St. Petersburg in 1815, and then in Pozhva on the Kama River in 1817. A number of steamship companies were formed on the Volga: the Obshchestvo po Volge (1843), the Kavkaz i Merkurii (1850–59), and the Samolet (1853) steamship companies and the Pol’za Kama-Volga Steamship Company (1854). In 1913 the number of steamships in Russian river transport had reached 5,467, and there were more than 23,000 river vessels that were not self-propelled.

Since the early 20th century, the steam engine has been supplanted on river vessels by the internal-combustion engine. The latter was first used by shipbuilders in Sormovo, who installed a diesel engine on the self-propelled tanker Vandal in 1903. In 1913, Russia led the world in number and quality of river vessels. Large-capacity metal tanker-barges were built for shipping petroleum. Russia had 64,600 km of navigable internal waterways. Cargo shipping by river transport reached 49.1 million tons—35.1 million tons using mechanical propulsion and the remainder using river current. More than 11 million passengers were carried. This shipping took place primarily on the rivers in the European part of the country. In prerevolutionary Russia, the rivers of Siberia and the Far East were hardly used for navigation; only rarely did ships travel the Ob’, Irtysh, Enisei, and Amur rivers. Shipping on the rivers of the eastern basins accounted for roughly 6 percent of the total freight traffic in river transport. Grain, lumber, petroleum, and bulk materials were carried. River wharves were not mechanized, and loading was done manually.

By a decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of Jan. 26 (Feb. 8), 1918, the river fleet was nationalized. Administration of the fleet was assigned to the Department of Water Transportation of the Supreme Council on the National Economy. In May 1918, the department was reorganized as the Main River Transportation Administration, which also directed the maritime fleet. The Volga Military Flotilla was formed from the nationalized fleet and took an active part in the Civil War of 1918–20. The GOELRO (State Commission for the Electrification of Russia) Plan, worked out on instructions from V. I. Lenin in 1920, envisioned the completion of improvements to the internal waterways of the European part of the RSFSR and wide use of the country’s water resources. The plan outlined the creation of a basic transportation network, the selection of types of vessels, the organization of traffic, and the construction of river ports. The Volkhov hydroengineering complex, which significantly improved ship navigation conditions on the Volkhov River, was the first to go into operation (December 1926).

Table 1. Cargo shipping in the USSR by river transport
1 As used by all organizations
Length of navigable internal waterways (km)1..............107,300142,700144,500146,100
Cargo shipped, millions of tons.................73.1269.0357.8452.0
Freight traffic (billion tons-km) .................36.1133.9174.0212.3

The high-head dam of the V. I. Lenin Dneproges hydroelectric power plant raised the water level at the Dnieper rapids, and the river became navigable over its entire length. The first hydro-engineering complex on the Svir’ River (1933) deepened the river’s lower course. In 1933 the Baltic-White Sea Canal, which connected the White Sea with the Baltic Sea, also went into operation.

A great deal of work was done in the mid-1930’s to establish a uniform, deep-water network in the European part of the USSR. The construction of a series of hydroengineering complexes and reservoirs on the Volga was enormously important; the first of them, Ivan’kovo, went into operation in conjunction with the Moscow Canal. During the prewar five-year plans (1929–40), the self-propelled river fleet was enlarged by 120 percent; the number of vessels not self-propelled increased by 170 percent. Ports were built at river cities, 50 percent of loading and unloading operations were mechanized, and the volume of river shipping more than tripled.

During the Great Patriotic War, river transport carried approximately 200 million tons of cargo for the front and the rear. River workers worked at the military crossings at Stalingrad and on Lake Ladoga, across which the Road of Life led to the besieged Leningrad. The war caused enormous damage to river transport. The fascist occupying troops sank and seized more than 8,300 river vessels and destroyed hundreds of ports, wharves, dams, dikes, and locks. River transport was rebuilt during the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1946–50).

In 1952 construction was completed on the V. I. Lenin Volga-Don Ship Canal, which connected the most important economic regions of the European part of the USSR—the Ural and Volga regions and the Central Zone—with the Donbas and the south. In 1955 two major hydroengineering complexes, Gorky and Kuibyshev, went into operation on the Volga, increasing the guaranteed depth of the Volga and Kama rivers by 0.9 m. In 1967 the Volga was dammed near Saratov, and a new reservoir was created whose waters extended to Kuibyshev.

The opening of the first hydroengineering complex on the Kama River above Perm’ in 1957 marked the beginning of navigation improvements on that river. In 1964 the Votkinsk Reservoir came into use. In the same year, construction was completed on the V. I. Lenin Volga-Baltic Waterway, which ensured a reliable transportation link between the economic regions of the Central Zone and the Northwest European Russia. Construction of the navigation canals of the Baltic-White Sea, Volga-Don, and Volga-Baltic waterways connected the seas surrounding the European part of the USSR with a network of internal, deep-water river mainlines.

River transport in the USSR is a part of the country’s integrated transportation system (seeINTEGRATED TRANSPORT NETWORK OF THE USSR). It is very important for the development of industry and agriculture in the eastern regions. It serves industry in Western Siberia, particularly the development of petroleum and natural gas regions. River transport carries cargo for the Noril’sk Mining and Metallurgical Combine, timber for export to Igarka, and cargo for the Yakut mining industry. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, hydroengineering work began on the eastern rivers. Several hydroengineering complexes were built—Irkutsk and Bratsk on the Angara River, Novosibirsk on the Ob’ River, and Bukhtarma and Ust’-Kamenogorsk on the Irtysh River. In 1972 construction was finished on the first stage of the Kras-noiarsk hydroengineering complex, largest in the world, on the Enisei River. The mighty rivers of Siberia have been changed from communication routes of local importance into main transit lines that link up with the ports of the European part of the USSR along the northern sea route. In 1973 shipping on rivers of the eastern basins accounted for 24.5 percent of the total volume of shipping by river transport.

In 1973 river transport accounted for 4.2 percent of total freight traffic in the USSR. The main cargoes in river transport freight traffic are mineral construction materials, lumber, petroleum, and hard coal. Table 1 gives statistics on the volume of river shipping in the USSR, and Table 2 shows productivity in river transport operations.

The quantitative and qualitative composition of the fleet has changed sharply in the postwar period. The average power, cargo capacity, passenger capacity, and speed of vessels have increased. In 1973, vessels with diesel engines accounted for 94 percent of the power of the entire transport fleet. Diesel ships capable of carrying up to 5,000 tons and traveling more than 20 km/hr have appeared on the rivers. The self-propelled freighter fleet has been equipped with new diesel ships whose design permits them to be used not only on the rivers but also on all the seas bordering Europe and the northern and eastern shores of the USSR.

Tugboats and push boats with powers up to 2,950 kilowatts (4,000 hp) have been built for operation on the mainline rivers. Further development of the portion of the fleet that is not self-propelled involved construction of cargo tows consisting of sections with capacities of 3,000 tons or more and of dry-cargo and petroleum barges (not self-propelled) capable of carrying up to 9,000 tons. In the early 1970’s, highly efficient container shipping was introduced in USSR river transport. High-speed hydrofoil ships were built, which operate on an entirely new principle of movement. Diesel ships of the Raketa and Meteor types, which have speeds of 60 to 65 km/hr, are the foundation of the high-speed passenger fleet. The river passenger fleet has been greatly increased, and additions to it have included three-deck luxury diesel and diesel-electric passenger ships of 885 kilowatts (1,200 hp) adapted to use on reservoirs, two-deck diesel ships of 590 kilowatts (800 hp), and small “river-bus” vessels. With the appearance of vessels designed for both river and maritime use and the establishment of deep-water interbasin connections,

Table 2. Use of the USSR river fleet
11 hp = 0.736 kilowatt
Productivity/hp1in the tug fleet for 24 hr of operation (tons-km)    
Petroleum ......................686585571557
Lumber in rafts ....................9779971,025967
Dry cargo.............................203323312320
Productivity/ton of cargo capacity for 24 hr of operation (tons-km)    
Dry-cargo fleet, self-propelled.................37.7108.0110.7121.0
Dry-cargo fleet, not self-propelled .................13.541.346.452.7
Tanker fleet, self-propelled................132.0144.0145.0
Tanker fleet, not self-propelled .................36.671.271.781.4

the sphere of river transport operations for direct river-sea shipping has expanded.

During the years of socialist construction, large river ports were constructed or rebuilt and equipped with modern loading machinery. In 1973, loading and unloading operations were 97.9 percent mechanized.

On May 30, 1956, a decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR abolished the All-Union Ministry of the River Fleet and created the Ministry of the River Fleet of the RSFSR; where necessary in other Union republics, appropriate administrations under the councils of ministers of the Union republics were also established.

River transport is also developing successfully in the other socialist countries. The share of the total freight traffic of domestic transportation handled by river transport in the member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) is relatively stable (see Table 3).

Table 3. Length of waterways and share of shipping handled by river transport in the COMECON member countries
countryLength of internal Country waterways1 (km)Share of total freight traffic handled by river transport (%)
11973 2including all types of transportation
Bulgaria .............4703.13.7
Czechoslovakia ........4583.02.9
German Democratic Republic2,5461.71.6

Navigation along the Danube River plays the leading role in the river transport system of all the COMECON member countries. Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, and Rumania have the most highly developed networks of internal waterways.

The waterways of Poland include the Oder River, which has locks on its upper course. Together with the Gliwice Canal, the Oder connects the Silesian Coal Basin with the seaport of Szczecin. The Oder River basin is connected with the Vistula River by canal systems, and the Vistula’s tributary, the Bug River, is connected by canal with the Dnieper River basin (USSR). The main river routes in the German Democratic Republic are the lower Oder and the middle Elbe, which are connected by two systems of canals. One of the systems, the Elbe-Spree-Oder, connects the German Democratic Republic with Poland. In Hungary, the Danube, Tisza, and Körös rivers and Lake Balaton are used for navigation. Navigation in Czechoslovakia is conducted on the Danube and Elbe rivers. Navigation in Rumania is concentrated primarily on the Danube, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the total volume of river shipping in the country. The Danube also carries shipping in Bulgaria.

In 1972, 4.0 million tons of cargo were shipped in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, and freight traffic was approximately 2 billion tons-km. Corresponding figures for other socialist countries are as follows: the Hungarian People’s Republic, 2.8 million tons and 1.4 billion tons-km; the German Democratic Republic, 12.5 million tons and 2.0 billion tons-km; the Polish People’s Republic, 10.8 million tons and 2.5 billion tons-km; the Socialist Republic of Rumania, 5.3 million tons and 1.6 billion tons-km; and the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, 4.8 million tons and 2.6 billion tons-km.

In the postwar years, the river fleets of the COMECON member countries have been greatly increased by additions of new, modern vessels constructed by domestic enterprises and in the shipyards of other socialist countries.

The state of river transport in the capitalist countries is shown by the statistics in Table 4.

River transport in the USA handled 541.7 million tons of cargo in 1972 with freight traffic of 335.2 billion tons-km. The chief types of cargo were petroleum and petroleum products (38 percent), coal (20 percent), and mineral construction materials (15 percent). The share of total freight traffic handled by river transport was approximately 16.4 percent, including 5.3 percent on the Great Lakes. The Ohio River and the lower Mississippi account for a significant share of the shipping. There is a trend to increased average power of push boats, increased average capacity of barges, and increased distances over which cargo is shipped. The power ratings of push boats reach 7,300 kilowatts (10,060 hp). These ships have electronic radio navigation equipment and equipment to mechanize ship operations and automate control of the mechanisms. Vessels used in river transport in the USA are primarily not self-propelled and are joined into large, pushed tows of 20 to 40 barges with a total capacity of 20,000 to 50,000 tons.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, river transport handled 244 million tons of cargo in 1973, and freight traffic was 47.5 billion tons-km. The chief types of cargo were mineral construction materials (37.5 percent), petroleum and petroleum products (18.3 percent), and ores and scrap metal (14.6 percent). River transport accounts for 25.6 percent of the total freight traffic. A significant part of the shipping is carried on the Rhine River and its tributary the Main River and on canals, which extend 1,800 km. In the early 1970’s, large diesel cargo ships with capacities of 1,500 tons and more were put into operation. Navigation by push boats is widespread, and push boats with power ratings of 4,400 kilowatts (6,000 hp) are being built and equipped for mechanization and automated control.

In France, river transport moved 110 million tons of cargo in 1973, and freight traffic was 15 billion tons-km. The principal cargoes were mineral construction materials (51.1 percent), petroleum and petroleum products (19.6 percent), and agricultural raw materials (9.9 percent). A significant volume of shipping is conducted on the Rhine River (22.1 percent) and on the Seine and Marne rivers. River transport accounted for 6.9 percent of the total freight traffic. In the 1970’s, push-boat navigation has developed, and the average power of push boats and the cargo capacity of diesel cargo ships have increased.

In the developing countries, the total length of internal waterways in the early 1970’s was more than 164,000 km. This included 82,000 km in the countries of Latin America (approximately two-thirds of which is in the Amazon River system),

Table 4. Composition of the river fleets of the developed capitalist countries
CountryYearLength of waterways (km)Tugs and push boatsVessels not self-propelledSelf-propelled cargo fleet
   NumberPower (thousand hp)NumberCapacity (thousand tons)NumberCapacity (thousand tons)Power (thousand hp)
Federal Republic of Germany........19725,900401207.71,1201,106.94,3943,447.81,970.0
USA ............197141,1004,0923,847.019,48022,160.0

34,000 km in the countries of Africa (approximately one-third of which belongs to the Congo River system, with the Niger River and Nile River systems in second and third places, respectively), 48,000 km in the countries of Asia (approximately one-fifth of which belongs to the rivers of the Indian subcontinent and Burma). These waterways have a low level of technical development and are little used for transport. The river fleets of most of the developing countries are made up of small, obsolete vessels (often, sail boats).


Lenin, V. I. “Rech’ na III Vserossiiskom s”ezde rabochikh vodnogo transporta, 15 marta 1920 g. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 40.
Lenin, V. I. “Knaseleniiu.” Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 35, p. 67.
Zhitkov, S. M. Istoricheskii obzor ustroistva i soderzhaniia vodnykhputei i portov ν Rossii za stoletnii period 1798–1898. St. Petersburg, 1900.
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Transportnaia sistema mira. Moscow, 1971.
Ekonomika i ekspluatatsiia zarubezhnogo rechnogo transporta. Moscow, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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