UK forwarders and shippers who route cargo through the port of Felixstowe will be unable to return empty containers to the port until at least 23 September.

The UK’s largest container port continues to grapple with crippling congestion.

Maersk told customers today it would “temporarily cease acceptance of empty container restitution at the port of Felixstowe”.

But it added: “We will allow inland restitution of empty containers without penalty.”

CMA CGM has also placed a ban on empties going to Felixstowe and has requested they be returned to London Gateway for the time being.

Although neither carrier has put a date on when they would begin to accept empties again at Felixstowe, the British International Freight Association (BIFA) said it would not be before next Wednesday.

Director general Robert Keen said: “The operational performance at Felixstowe has been very challenging for some time, but over the last 24 hours the issues have escalated to a level that could be disastrous for our members’ businesses, which have already been hard hit by Covid-19.

“The latest port ‘initiative’ would appear to be an attempt to overcome the huge congestion that has developed, which has led to significant haulage problems for our members, as many containers can neither be collected nor returned.

“Empty containers will have to be restituted to inland container parks, which will lead to an escalation in haulage costs for members using merchant haulage; as well as quay rent and demurrage issues and expenses, which are difficult to pass on to our members’ customers,” he added.

Carriers and forwarders alike have attributed the problems at Felixstowe to a range of causes, including port staff shortages, haulage driver shortages, a pre-Golden Week holiday import surge and delayed vessels from Asia not meeting their berthing slots due to weather and typhoons in Asia. All this, in combination with other factors, has led to the port’s vehicle booking system (VBS) becoming unworkable.

Colin Haines, business development manager at Cargo Overseas, told The Loadstar: “The VBS situation is unsustainable and is having a major impact on our industry and, more importantly, on the service we can provide to our clients.

“We understand port of Felixstowe is still using the government’s furlough scheme, but there is clearly work which requires the [staff’s] return. Now, more than ever, we need the infrastructure of the UK to be fully functional to alleviate the challenges we face rather than to exacerbate them.”

Mr Keen called for the port’s management to respond to forwarders’ concerns: “Our members say that the port authority is merely paying lip service to any enquiries they make, which is unacceptable for a port authority which owns the UK’s busiest container port.

“The debacle in 2018, when the port undertook a disastrous migration to a new in-house terminal operating system, appears to be at the root of the current VBS problems, exacerbating the congestion problems.

“BIFA members have suffered two years of poor service from the port, and it is high time it considered BIFA members as direct customers and show some willingness to discuss compensation for the damage caused to, and increased costs incurred by, those members.

“At the very least, the port authority should extend free-time for quay rent and demurrage,” he said.

Some vessels scheduled to call at the port have begun to make diversions to other UK gateways. The Loadstar confirmed today via AIS data that the 18,000 teu Eleonora Maersk, deployed on the 2M’s Asia-North Europe AE7/Condor service and due to arrive at Felixstowe on Sunday, will call at London Gateway instead.

Related: Menzies and Felixstowe beset by problems – but one is handling it well

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