Inside IJMuiden: Amsterdam’s new sea lock

30 March 2016 (Last Updated November 8th, 2017 16:14)

As gatekeeper to around 80% of Europe’s cargo by sea, the Port of Amsterdam is preparing to build a new, tide-independent sea lock to accommodate some of the world’s largest ships. With the construction of the IJMuiden sea lock due to begin in early 2016, a sprawling operation involving state bodies, international banks and a consortium of designers and builders is now in full swing.

Inside IJMuiden: Amsterdam’s new sea lock

Momentum is building for the upcoming construction of Netherland’s IJMuiden sea lock, the new entry point for large and medium-sized cargo vessels mooring to European shores after crossing the North Sea.

IJMuiden sea lock, to be opened for shipping in 2019, comes nearly a century after Noordersluis’ reign as the biggest sea lock in Europe. With outdated infrastructure and limited space, Noordersluis is now fast approaching the end of its useful technical life, scheduled for 2029. In anticipation to this, the City Council of Amsterdam last year approved the accelerated and expanded construction of a new lock.

IJMuiden’s strategic positioning as a key access point into the North Sea Canal and to the Port of Amsterdam makes it a project of international relevance.

As one of the world’s main logistic hubs, the Port of Amsterdam handles cargo transhipment of more than 95m tonnes each year, making it Western Europe’s fourth-largest port. With connections to all major European markets, the harbour presents facilities for handling, storing and transporting a variety of goods from cocoa beans to toys, as well as dry and liquid bulk cargo, scoring as the biggest petrol port globally.

The total added value of the port’s operations was €6.2bn in 2013, according to its annual records. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Dutch ministry expects the new sea lock to significantly boost the Netherlands’ economy, as it ensures improved accessibility for large ocean-going vessels, opening up the transport route to all ports and businesses positioned along the North Sea Canal.

Ahead of its launch in four years’ time, delivery of the IJMuiden sea lock is an infrastructural and logistical challenge, mobilising a host of local and international bodies working together to prepare, fund and build the €890m flagship development.

A larger sea lock to boost local trade

More than just a replacement to an obsolete system, the new sea lock is an asset to regional and national trade, and the decision to launch it ten years earlier than initially expected is a testimony to its value.

“Port operators have complained about the restrictive impact these reduced dimensions have on local trade.”

A large task force including the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Dutch Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, the City of Amsterdam and the Province of North Holland, among others, has vouched to the economic benefits that this early launch would bring to Amsterdam’s metropolitan area.

The system currently in operation at IJMuiden comprises of four locks of varying sizes that protect the water levels in the North Sea Canal. The North lock, or Noordersluis, is the largest of the four, at 400m in length, 50m in width with a depth of 15m, meaning that only ships with a maximum 13.72m draft can squeeze through. As the remaining three locks are even smaller, port operators have complained about the restrictive impact these reduced dimensions have on local trade.

The new lock will be 500m long, 70m wide and 18m deep, enabling most ships to navigate the lock even at low tide, and it will be located between Noordersluis and other locks.

Prior to the council’s decision to speed up the construction process, the central planning bureau warned that estimates of ship size increase have been overly optimistic, arguing they do not reflect future trends and that a new lock would be unnecessary.

Regardless, the decision to accelerate its expansion was unanimously taken by administrative bodies last year. The reasoning behind their enthusiasm is that a larger lock will eliminate congestion in the port area, limit waiting times, offer employment opportunities and provide great scope for future growth. The throughput expected to be handled once the lock is operational is 125m tonnes, a generous increase from the current 90m tonnes.

Rigorous testing is key

Not surprisingly, the project’s scale and complexity brings significant hurdles, especially since all access points and pathways in the region will need to remain open during the construction, so that business can go on as usual.

Rigorous testing has been carried out to ensure a smooth running of the lock’s operations.

Independent institute Deltares has carried out extensive hydraulic research on a 1:40 scale model of the sea lock to observe the forces and effects generated by freshwater and salt water on ships. Using a bulk carrier with a length of 330m and a beam of 52m, the team is looking at required levelling time and forces exerted on the ships in the lock chamber during levelling. Their results will be used to validate the numerical models used for the lock’s design.

“The complete levelling process is simulated in the scale model, including the lock exchange process after opening of the gate,” explains Deltares engineer Arne van der Hout. “Levelling tests with a density difference showed that the forces due to these differences in density were significant and could exceed allowable forces. The forces on the ship showed to be largest during lock exchange. On basis of the results of the scale model study, the contractual requirements for the levelling times have been adjusted by [the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment].”

Deltares has completed the test program and is currently in the process of reporting all the results, Hout says. Testing on the real facilities is expected to begin in 2018.

International players commit to project funding

The approximately €890m project is to be funded through a private-public partnership which includes bank loan facilities, support from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and equity financing. This makes the sea lock at IJMuiden the first design, build, finance and maintain project for large maritime infrastructure in the Netherlands.

“As ‘Amsterdam’s front door’, it will contribute to the economic status and the further development of the region.”

A one-off investment was approved by the City Council of Amsterdam in November 2014, a decision the port authority welcomed at the time in a statement saying: “The lock is the gateway to the Amsterdam port region. As ‘Amsterdam’s front door’, it will contribute to the economic status and the further development of the region surrounding the North Sea Canal area.”

Further negotiations concluded two months later, when the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Province of North Holland and the City of Amsterdam signed a financial agreement. The ministry committed to offer €601m towards the project, followed by the City of Amsterdam with €105m and the Province of North Holland with €56m. The plan elaboration phase is also funded by the European Union under its Trans-European Transport Network programme.

In June 2015, EIB announced its €165m in funding towards the sea lock’s construction, which stands as 33% of the debt financing of the project. Some of the rest will be sourced from a handful of banks including DZ Bank, Deutsche Zentral-Genossenschaftsbank, KfW IPEX, SMBC, BTMU and Unicredit Bank, who have collectively agreed to a €500m loan, to be repaid during the lock’s the 26-year operating phase.

The Dutch Highways and Waterways Agency, or Rijkswaterstaat, has awarded the €500m contract to design, construct, finance and maintain the lock to the OpenIJ consortium. The participating bodies in the consortium are BAM-PGGM, VolkerWessels and DIF. BAM Infra and VolkerWessels will carry out the construction activities starting in 2016, while OpenIJ will be in charge of the lock’s maintenance for the first 26 years of operation.

Speaking soon after the council’s approval last year, Port of Amsterdam CEO Dertje Meijer relayed once again the important role IJMuiden’s sea lock plays in the future of Amsterdam as a world-class city: “The new large sea lock will make it possible for us to transform our Vision 2030 into a reality, which means the port becoming a metropolitan port, in which the hubs of port, city and industry are more interconnected so that there is far greater scope for innovation and improved sustainability.”