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Somewhat overshadowed by the vibrant discussions on the new mega-alliances, at the annual JOC TPM conference in Long Beach in early March, was the consequential impact the cascading of hitherto “big ships” from the Asia-Europe service onto the transpacific would have on US west coast ports.

US ports have been keen to promote themselves as “big ship-ready” – able to accommodate the ultra-large containerships (ULCS) increasingly being deployed on the transpacific.

However, from the debates that took place at TPM, it was apparent that the theory was fine – sufficient water, quay length and super-post-panamax gantry cranes exist at a number of ports – but in practice there are some tough challenges ahead.

Indeed, it was suggested that the already fragile infrastructure at many US ports could mean that the massive exchange requirements of the ULCS would put unsustainable pressure on landside operations at terminals.

Understandably, the prospect of further delays in the supply chain caused by port congestion was not welcome news for US retailers already having to cope with tardy liner schedule reliability and transport bottlenecks after carriers quit providing chassis.

And in Europe, the general assumption has been that handling the 13,000teu-plus ships that have become the new normal economy of scale necessity on Asia Europe would not present too much of a problem for ports in the northern range.

But now shipping consultant Drewry has suggested that the advent of more of these behemoths – and there are another 30 ULCS being delivered this year, a 50% increase in the number in service as at the end of 2013 – could put extra pressure on landside and intermodal operations.

In its weekly Container Insight, Drewry says that, for example, the port rationalisation announced so far by the proposed P3 alliance members will mean that “much bigger chunks of Asian cargo will have to be discharged from each vessel, and then, just as importantly, processed through each gateway to its hinterland before the next [ship] arrives, possibly a few days later”.

It notes from the P3 proforma schedule issued by Maersk Line, MSC and CMA CGM that the average vessel size will increase from 11,580teu to 13,032teu, but the number of weekly services will reduce from nine to eight and port calls from 41 to 32.

Drewry adds that the ability of the terminal to handle the bigger ships “will count for little if insufficient stack capacity is available to receive cargo”, and thus greater use of intermodal transport will be necessary, given the already congested state of most European roads.

In this respect, the growth of barge operations from both Rotterdam and Antwerp is identified by Drewry as a key factor in the Benelux ports coping with the expected hike in volumes.

Indeed, Europe’s largest inland port at Duisburg processed an extra 16% of container traffic in 2013 to pass the three million teu mark.

Last week, The Loadstar reported on the chronic congestion at Europe’s second-biggest container port, Hamburg, which is suffering from the aftermath of a sustained period of bad weather exacerbated by the deployment of bigger and bigger ships.

“Every time ships become bigger we have more peaks to deal with: ship size contributes to the congestion,” the managing director of the Hamburg ship agents’ association, Alexander Geisler, told The Loadstar.

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