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Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam’s plan to run “fixed windows” for the loading and unloading of container barges to tackle congestion in the Dutch gateway has been applauded – although some have questioned how effective the initiative will be in practice.
The port operator announced last week that it would launch a three-month pilot in January for barge operators running – either independently or jointly – “substantial” container volumes.
Terminal operators HTS Intermodal, CCT Moerdijk and Barge Terminal Tilburg, and barge operators Contargo, Haeger & Schmidt and European Gateway Services (EGS) will participate in the trial.
ECT said the pilot would guarantee fixed weekly calls, punctuality and data exchange, and, if successful, would be rolled out to the wider inland market.
ECT chief executive Leo Ruijs said the company was looking to create a “mature” customer relationship with container inland shipping through the service.
“With this pilot, which we will hopefully be able to convert into a new service, we are once again offering the market a choice,” said Mr Ruijs.
“In addition to the regular handling of barges, fixed windows and the Barge Transferium Maasvlakte are services with which we acknowledge the diversity within the inland container shipping segment.”
Waiting times for barge operators at the port have worsened in December following several weeks of improvement for a problem that has plagued both Rotterdam and Antwerp throughout 2017.
Contargo warned customers on Monday to expect waiting times of between 12 and 48 hours – although this was down from the 72 hours reported last week.
Responding to the announcement of “fixed windows” SeasC4U’s Gunther Ginckels said he thought it looked a “good initiative” but added that operational reality may “overtake this wishful initiative”.
“Hutchison already makes some reservations as they indicate that it is to serve barges with ‘large call-sizes,’” said Mr Ginckels.
“Reading between the lines, this means that operators presenting barges with – say less than average 40 moves – will not benefit from the fixed window facility.”
However, Mr Ginckels said this may also be a positive as it will force barge operators to look more at barge sharing agreements (BSAs) and improving cargo streams.
He said it was the small scale barge operators with limited volumes that were hindering progress towards reducing congestion, as they created more vessel calls at the ocean terminals
“One would hope it will (should) encourage the fragmented industry to consolidate on a per barge basis to benefit from the windows as considerable volumes will be required,” said Mr Ginckels.
“So, let’s give it the benefit of the doubt, and it will interesting is to see which other terminals respond to this.
“And moreover, how will the terminals in Antwerp – with much more complexity having multiple terminals inside and outside locks between two riverbanks – react.”
Mr Ginckels said the three carriers chosen for the trial would likely have the necessary volumes or be capable of consolidating loads to make the system work.
He also noted ECT’s own carrier service EGS’s participation within the pilot, which a lot of other barge operators considered a “direct attack” on their business when it began operating.
This led some operators to file a legal complaint for market manipulation after ECT allegedly gave priority berthing to EGS barges over third party barges.
Competition authorities investigated the complaints and raided the ECT offices in 2014, and the company was subsequently cleared of all allegations.