The port of Felixstowe is tightening up the criteria for using its vehicle booking system (VBS) at its two container terminals, which, it alleged, had been abused by some hauliers.

The UK’s biggest container port said the design of its heavily criticised VBS, which allows slots to be secured without a container associated with the booking, “had encouraged some hauliers to secure as many bookings as they could, irrespective of their actual need”.

“They then returned unwanted bookings at the last minute (to avoid no-show charges), by which time they [the returned bookings] are of limited benefit to other firms,” said a website statement.

So, from today, all bookings for Felixstowe’s Trinity and Landguard box terminals made between 11am and 7pm and not associated with a container number four hours before the slot time, will be lost automatically and reclaimed by the system.

The port said the reclaimed VBS slots would be re-released for general use, but it would be mandatory to attach container number details.

It also said it was increasing the number of VBS slots available, but did not specify the quantity.

However, a straw poll this morning of The Loadstar’s contacts at the port gave a mixed reaction to the VBS changes, with one haulier source saying “the proof will be in the pudding” as its full effects would unlikely be seen for a week.

But another contact said that, although she was not sure how effective the new VBS measures would be, she was “hopeful it will stop the bigger players hogging the slots”.

Felixstowe has faced a barrage of complaints from supply chain stakeholders over the past month as it has struggled to cope with a spike in demand, being accused of overseeing a “shambles”, and adopting a “contemptuous attitude” towards customers.

Indeed, The Loadstar’s in box has been full of horror stories from importers that have struggled to get their containers out of the port.

One retailer said last Wednesday: “I am only a small company importing optical lenses and my shipment has been in Felixstowe since 24 September. I am now worried that if this delay continues I could lose customers and have to close, people’s jobs are at major risk.

“We have all attempted to trade during the Covid outbreak and lockdown only to be let down by a company that cannot move boxes. It’s a disgrace.”

Shippers have also suffered significant supply chain disruption as carriers have diverted ships from Felixstowe to other UK ports, or the hubs of Rotterdam and Antwerp for relay back to the UK.

Moreover, exporters have complained of “weeks of delay” to containers for Felixstowe as the lines skipped the port or ‘cut and run’ before completing discharging and loading.

The director general of the British International Freight Association, Robert Keen, said on Friday its members had suffered “two years of poor service from the port”, and called for the government to instigate independent arbitration to “address the many issues faced by the port’s users”.

Due to the fierce criticism over its lack of transparency, the port has added a data link to its website, showing the daily number of bookings available, taken and unused.

“We believe these changes will improve the efficiency and availability of the VBS and allow us to, collectively, provide a more reliable service to shippers using the port of Felixstowe,” it said.

In an endeavour to improve its communication and relationship with its customers the Hutchison-owned port has reappointed port veteran Chris Lewis to the role of chief executive, effective 1 November. And in a message to employees, executive director Clemence Cheng said Mr Lewis had a “proven track record in delivering high levels of productivity and customer service, using a teamwork approach”.

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