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The ill winds of the winter blew in favour of the new UK container port at London Gateway, when several ships were diverted from Felixstowe to the DP World facility at the start of the year as violent storms battered the North Sea port. But now in the midst of summer, good old fashioned “port congestion” at the Hutchison UK east coast port is the reason given by Maersk Line and China Shipping Container Lines for ordering their ships up the River Thames.

Maersk has already seen its ME1 (Middle East service) Maersk Kimi discharge its imports at London Gateway on August 23 and it has now decided to transfer another ME1 service ship, the Maersk Kyrenia there on August 30.

Meanwhile, CSCL has also apparently got weary of waiting in a queue for a berth at Felixstowe and has advised its customers and partners on the AEX1 loop XIN Beijing that its Asian imports will be discharged at London Gateway.

Indeed, anecdotal reports from customers of the UK’s biggest container port suggest that other ships will follow if the situation at Felixstowe does not improve promptly.

The labour situation at Felixstowe is always stretched during the peak summer holiday season, due historically to too many dockers being allowed time off during the school holiday period, but the unexpected growth in imports this year from Asia has obviously worsened an already tight situation.

Of course Felixstowe is not alone in North Europe in finding it challenging to cope with a year-on-year 9% growth in Asian imports; congestion problems at Rotterdam and Hamburg have been well documented.

The two biggest ports in Europe have, in mitigation, complained that ocean carriers are not maintaining schedules and are arriving with their new ultra-large containerships several days later than advertised still expecting to secure a berth.

Felixstowe has not so far commented on the reason for the current port congestion, and generally does not, however the problems that have caused the severe bottlenecks at Rotterdam and Hamburg in the past weeks will no doubt have a similar underlying cause.

Unfortunately carriers are still as inefficient as ever in advising shippers that their import cargo has been diverted, and seem to communicate the information late and without much empathy.

Indeed, they often appear little interested in the problems that it causes their customers, who arguably might have preferred a few days’ delay awaiting a berth at Felixstowe to the organised chaos of a vessel diversion.

And with container lines’ operation centre priority being to dump cargo before moving on to another port and returning to Asia for another full load, it is exporters which are the biggest sufferers in the change of port, having little time to rearrange their routing.

Meanwhile, another concern to the management at Felixstowe is that London Gateway, with its handling of ad-hoc vessels from Asia, is getting closer to its main target of securing a major Asia to Europe shipping line customer on a long-term contract.

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  • Gary

    August 28, 2014 at 10:08 am

    I feel that Gateway still has a way to go in terms of convincing the greater shipping world that it makes sense to leave an established port such as FLX and switch to a unproven entity. Gateway losing the M&S warehouse project has possibly knocked them back a bit in getting closer to that magical top carrier Asia – Europe Signature. Im sure over time that will happen but they need to balance the additional Fuel costs getting into Gateway against the THC’s and harbour dues to make a line fully commit. I can’t believe that Hutchinson are that naive and will let the larger carriers divert on a regular basis. They have taken their eye off of the ball in the UK already with the demise of Thamesport by not taking Gateway seriously and i cannot think for one minute they will let their UK flagship port suffer the same.

  • David Thompson

    September 04, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    We had a number of containers on Xin Beijing offloaded at London Gateway. What a disaster. The port might be capable of discharging the vessels but the rest of the infrastructure – transport links, local warehousing etc – is not capable of meeting the demand. It should not take three weeks to get containers off the quay when they were cleared on the day of arrival. CSCL claim it cost them a huge amount of money to switch the vessel, but say it was a UASC decision. Even more galling is that it still called Felixstowe and discharged containers after leaving London.

    The next line to offload our containers there will lose our business, because we simply can’t cope with the ramifications both in cost, and even more importantly, the damage to our reputation.

    • Mike Wackett

      September 04, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      Thank you for your view from the front line David.
      It seems it is always the shipper that suffers in these situations!
      It sounds that you have received a very confused response from CSCL.
      I don’t understand why it was a UASC decision to divert the vessel as surely it is a CSCL ship?
      And why did it cost them money, I assumed the idea was to save vessel time (and money) waiting in the queue at Felixstowe?
      So why did the ship return to Felixstowe after discharging the majority of its cargo at London Gateway – was there a landside restriction at Felixstowe?
      In fairness to Gateway last minute ad-hoc ships from a confused carrier are much more difficult to handle than scheduled services.
      Carrier communication still leaves a lot to be desired!

  • xavier woodward

    September 04, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Hi David.
    Which company do you represent? The ship you refer to called only last week, so it’s not possible for three weeks.
    Happy to speak and meet directly at your convenience. We can look into your concern straight away. As for local infrastructure, all local and major roads are open as normal and the dual carriage way access road is open as normal.
    Xavier Woodward
    Communications Manager
    DP World London Gateway

    • David Thompson

      September 08, 2014 at 3:30 pm

      Hi Mike

      I agree with your comments about CSCL being confused. To be fair to the guys in the front line, they were trying to cope with being thrown into a situation at the last minute and dealing with the fall out. There did not appear to be any contingency plan in place.

      Xavier, my criticism of Gateway is that the decision was taken to discharge the vessel there with seemingly little thought into how the containers were being moved. The vessel arrived on 28th August, and we have managed to secure a booking for transport for the final container on 17th September, having tried (and subsequently let down by) local trucking companies in the area, who suddenly had more work on offer than ever before.

      The decision to move a vessel discharge port should take into account the effect it has on customers – not just the bottom line for the shipping line. It’s not as though CSCL lead the way on schedule reliability anyway.

      Most of our containers are discharged at warehouses close to the port and hauliers local to Gateway had no real interest in moving boxes up to Felixstowe, when there was longer distance work on offer.

      Even this afternoon, I’m still fielding complaints from clients who’s time sensitive products are delayed. My problem is not with London Gateway directly. As I said in my original post, it’s that lack of landside infrastructure and support businesses that is the problem.