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Europe: The Sad Tale Of The Danube Steamship Company

By Sue Tapply

Vienna, 11 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Shock waves are rippling through the shipping scene after the announcement that DDSG Cargo -- the renowned Danube Steamship Company -- is up for sale again.

Only three years ago, the company was purchased from the Austrian state by the German conglomerate Stinnes. DDSG Cargo's chairman Gerhard Fuhrmann said that Stinnes is withdrawing from all its involvement in shipping activities on the Danube river and hopes to sell DDSG Cargo by the end of the year.

The main reason for the latest sell-off is the drop in the freight-carrying business along the inland waterway, brought about by the difficulties since 1992 in former Yugoslavia and the general economic problems the countries around the Danube have had to cope with in the last few years.

Because of the Yugoslav disruptions, trade has been diverted to other means of transport or to northern ports like Rotterdam and Hamburg or on the Adriatic. The Danube flows through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and rump Yugoslavia before hitting the Black Sea.

Stinnes Corporation has its headquarters in Mullheim an der Ruhr, and is involved in shipping, storage, and oil and tire transportation and in the building trade. Fuhrmann was unable to say much about the future of the Danube company. He said he "had only recently been told that the owners intended to sell" and said that "the staff are shattered."

The company had been making huge savings, but had been unable to reach the turnover they had hoped for. All talks about the DDSG Cargo sale with both Austrian and foreign companies are being carried out by Stinnes. Our correspondent in Vienna reports the Wiener Hafen concern is currently the local favorite as prospective purchaser.

DDSG Cargo owns 90 vessels, 20 of which are motorised, and has 83 regular employees. It had 300 when Stinnes bought it in 1993 from the state ownership of the Austrian Republic. In the course of the following three years, Stinnes set up subsidiaries in Hungary and Slovakia. The Budapest office now employs six people and leases crews and transportation as needed. Fifty people are employed in Bratislava, six in the office and 44 on the water.

At the beginning of 1996, DDSG Cargo was integrated with the Austrian forwarding agent Schenker and became part of a giant European inland shipping concern, with Stinnes bundling all its shipping activities together in the Schenker-Rhenus Corporation.

Fuhrmann also explained that the inland waterway crews have suffered from the deterioration of social and political conditions along the river. Where "there used to be stability, and hostels for the crew there are now bad working conditions and threats of robbery and violence en route." he said.

The sale in 1993 of the DDSG was one of a series of privatisations of state-run businesses in Austria. It is today a mere shadow of its former self.

The Danube Steamship Company was once the world's largest river boat operator. The "Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft" (DDSG) has had boats plying the Danube River between the Black Forest and Black Sea for 166 years. "Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftkapitaen" German for Donau steam ship company captain, is said to be the longest word in the German language, and is still taught to schoolchildren to sharpen their spelling ability.

In the late 19th century, the company had 11,000 employees and 1,000 vessels, ferrying passengers and freight along the 2,900 kilometers-long Danube River from the heartland of Germany to the Black Sea.

The company, founded in 1829 and owned by the Austrian federal government since 1946, had not earned a profit since the middle of the 1960s.