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The world’s three biggest container shipping lines will launch P3 Alliance operations in July, provided Chinese regulators approve their vessel sharing arrangement.

Reportedly, the Maersk Line, MSC and CMA CGM network will consist of 27 east-west service loops, have capacity of 2.6 million teu, and, depending on which presentation you read, deploy a fleet of 240, 252 or 255 vessels.

The three presentations nominated ports of call on the loops, but to date the terminals have yet to be advised – no doubt because the P3 members had, at the time (June 2013), still to agree the small print of the alliance, not least because of the carriers’ contracts and vested interests in many of their current terminals.

Under the P3’s proposal the port of Antwerp will receive four calls a week as a north-west European hub port – the only port apart from Willemshaven to gain from the respective combined AE, Lion etc, and FAL services of Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM.

MSC is by far Antwerp’s biggest customer, processing more than 4.5 million teu in 2013, representing over 50% of the port’s total container throughput, at the MSC Home Terminal, operated by the carrier’s subsidiary Terminal Investment Ltd in conjunction with local Port of Singapore affiliate PSA Antwerp.

MSC Home is situated in the Delwaidedok area inside the Berendrect lock – the world’s largest maritime lock. However, since 2010, the facility has been stretched to its capacity limits, forcing MSC to divert cargo to other ports in the Hamburg-Le Havre range.

As a consequence, MSC told Antwerp last year that to enable further growth it needed to transfer its operations to the Deurganckdok – on the left bank of the river Scheldt and outside the locks.

It is understood that MSC’s request was made before the announcement of the P3 agreement, which will inevitably further increase capacity requirements.

After consultation with stakeholders, the port authority  board of directors voted its approval at an extraordinary meeting in Antwerp yesterday evening.

The significance of MSC to Antwerp and its hinterland cannot be underestimated, with the activities of the carrier said by the port to provide more than 10,600 jobs in the area, with the proposed expansion accounting for another 760 permanent jobs.

Senior analyst ports & terminals at shipping consultant Drewry, Neil Davidson, said it was “inevitable” that MSC/TIL would be allowed to move to the Deurganckdok, and “logical”, as the PSA operator at the facility is its JV partner at MSC Home.

He said: “What will be interesting to see will be the knock-on effects on customers of both of the existing Deurganckdok terminals (PSA and DPW).

“While it sounds like the MSC move to Deurgancdok will involve capacity expansion, there will surely be some movement of customers between terminals, and possibly to the old MSC terminal at the Delwaide Dock. Given how costly container port capacity is, it seems unlikely that the port authority will want to see 4.5 million teu of capacity at the Delwaide Dock be used for other cargo, so some lines/alliances might be encouraged to move there.

“At the end of the day, it’s still an excellent facility with deep water.”

According to Mr Davidson the news raised two further interesting points.

“First, even though Antwerp is a port with a long river passage and navigational restrictions for large vessels, it is still proving popular because, ultimately, cargo is king and Antwerp remains a very large cargo generation port – up-river ports are still very much in the game if they have the cargo.

“Second, the growth of ship sizes and alliances is creating demand for fewer, larger terminals in ports, but many ports have fragmented capacity (both physically and in terms of ownership). There is a huge challenge faced by many ports to consolidate capacity (or facilitate its consolidation). Antwerp is one example of this and there will be others I’m sure.”

In a statement Antwerp said “if all goes to plan”,  the move by MSC to its new facility should be complete by the end of 2015.

In the interim “measures will be taken to preserve mobility” –  the smooth flow of traffic – and that would include greater use of barging, which currently represents around 36% of the modal split, somewhat less than its Benelux super-port rival Rotterdam, which is nearer to 50%.

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