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Monday, Sep 23, 2002

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LASHed, but not out

Santanu Sanyal

The lighter aboard ship (LASH), a vessel for carrying barges, was considered a significant breakthrough in ocean transportation. But, with the rise of containerisation, LASH operations worldwide have taken a beating. While it might be premature to predict a bleak future for LASH shipping, it is likely to remain a niche operation.

IN AN article in the Journal of Commerce, an US publication, the author, Chris Dupin, has expressed the apprehension that LASH (lighter aboard ship), a not-so-common vessel that carries barges, "could blink out of existence" within the next few years.

The fear may not be entirely unfounded. Consider, for instance, the Indian scene. Earlier, LASH used to call at several ports — Kolkata, Paradip and Visakhapatnam on the east coast and Jamnagar and Mumbai on the west. But not any longer. It has been several months since the last LASH with its barges called at any Indian port.

When first introduced more than three decades back, LASH, like the container ship, was considered a significant breakthrough in ocean transportation. In fact, LASH was considered a step above other vessels, as it linked ocean and inland waterways.

The first barge-carrying ship was launched in 1969 by Central Gulf Lines. Its successor, International Shipholding Corporation, through its subsidiaries Waterman Steamship and Forest Lines, has been one of the most successful users and perhaps, the only commercial operator of the LASH system. Waterman was active, among other places, in Indian as well.

A LASH ship is unlike any other vessel. It has a large gantry crane running the length of the vessel and is cantilevered over the ship's stern. The crane lifts the barges out of water, carries them forward and stacks them in the ship's open hatches. To discharge cargo, the process is reversed. A LASH mother ship is capable of carrying more than 80 barges, each with a capacity of 380 tonnes.

Of late, LASH operations worldwide have been at a low ebb. One major reason, of course, is the dominance of container ships, thanks to containerisation catching on in a big way. After all, a container ship facilitates transfer of cargo between various modes such as ship, truck and rail. In 1970, as Chris Dupin points out in his article, the Pacific Far East Line in the US went bankrupt after having tried, unsuccessfully though, to use LASH ships between US' west coast and Asia. American President Lines later converted them into container ships.

There are other reasons, too, for LASH's fall. LASH has been often used for the quick discharge of barges at a port or anchorage, or their towage to coastal or inland destinations for stowage or discharge. However, the system did not always work everywhere. Barge carriers work best where there is a network of inland waterways or small coastal ports at each end. Waterman ran them successfully between the US and the Gulf and South-East Asia and India. During the Gujarat quake in January 2001, Waterman's LASH system was pressed into service to move relief directly to Jamnagar, a shallow water port where the barges rest on the bottom in low tide.

Capital investments needed for a LASH and its barges are huge — a possible factor deterring the construction of new generation LASH systems. Also, investment in a LASH will be weighed against new generation containers ships that provide much greater advantages of door-to-door service without excessive cargo handling.

In the US, one of the strongest votaries of LASH was the defence sector, which found it convenient to use these vessels, especially in inland waterways and minor ports. However, the military, too, gradually reduced its dependence on LASH and increasingly switched over to container ships.

In Kolkata, Waterman found the operating cost at the port prohibitive. According to one estimate, the marine and cargo handling charges together cost a LASH more than Rs 10 lakh at the port. The cargo throughput, comprising imports and exports of various items, is about 1.25 lakh tonnes annually.

No wonder, the acquisition of new generation LASH vessels is not a priority for the operators, not even for replacement purposes. According to the Journal of Commerce, the last new LASH ships were delivered in the early 1980s. About 30 were built, much of which were for US carriers and the rest for companies in the erstwhile Soviet Union and Western Europe. Several of them have been scrapped in recent years.

But then it will be rash to claim that the picture is entirely dismal. There are still several regions, such as the former Soviet Union, China and Vietnam which have large river systems, where barge carriers would still be useful. After all, LASH can serve ports with shallow draft, low productivity and paucity of cargo-handling equipment. Mother ships can discharge barges and maintain schedules even if the barges take days to be unloaded. Also, contrary to perception in many quarters, LASH's niche is not bulk items, such as foodgrains, but break-bulk items.

In India, sources close to LASH operators indicate that the services could resume by the year-end or early next, but would most probably be confined to the west coast. Resumption of services on the east coast, it is felt, might depend on, among other things, the rationalisation of port charges.

The late 1970s and the early 1980s were the golden years of LASH shipping, when its users included several top shipping lines. While it might be premature to predict firmly the future of LASH shipping, one thing is clear: It is likely to remain a niche operation in a world increasingly dominated by containerisation.

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