© Khunaspix Dreamstime.

Few outside of European container shipping circles will have heard of Wilhelmshaven (and there’s possibly quite a few within it who haven’t heard of it either), but from small acorns can large container transhipment facilities emerge.

For most of its life it has been a little port in Northern Germany at the entrance of the River Weser, mainly handling liquid bulk products, but after years of sometimes tortuous political wrangling and commercial negotiation a new container terminal is due to begin operations this autumn.

It began life as a joint project between the city of Bremen and the state of Lower Saxony, which together built the infrastructure for the deepwater JadeWeserPort; the motivation being Bremen’s realisation that its container facilities at Bremerhaven, which handled just under 6m teu last year, had no further room for physical expansion, prompting the fear that future container volumes would be lost to its bitter rival Hamburg, or worse still – the Dutch.

In many ways it was a speculative build, and one which seemed almost wilfully negligent during the 2009 downturn in volumes, but they pressed on and announced that German terminal operator Eurogate, which has a 70% stake in the terminal, in a partnership with Maersk (subsequently transferred to its sister company APM Terminals) which has a 30% share, has been awarded a 40-year concession to run it.

Well, you have to speculate to accumulate, and Maersk has guaranteed to move at least one of the several Asia-Europe strings that currently call at Bremerhaven to Wilhelmshaven when it begins operations.

While that had been scheduled for earlier this year, problems with the construction of the quay wall pushed it back, and managing director Mikkel Andersen now expects that the first vessel will be handled at the end of September.

“Maersk has told us to make sure the quay wall is fixed, and it will bring the boxes – but we don’t know which service it will be yet,” he said.

Mr Andersen added that eventually he expects some 30-35% of the cargo to be local traffic, but initially it is going to be almost entirely transhipment cargo, which from a historical perspective can also be seen as the culmination of what has been termed the third revolution in containerised transport.

This is a theory put forward by veteran port and shipping academic Asaf Ashar, an influential Israeli shipping economist from the University of Louisiana, who has broken down the history of containerisation into four principal revolutions – the first being the invention of the container itself; the second the development of intermodalism and the use of containers as a through-transport unit; and the third the development of large-scale transhipment facilities and hub-and-spoke distribution patterns.

This is emphasised by the fact that it coincides with the first anniversary of the Daily Maersk service, the guaranteed Asia-Europe “conveyor belt” – which sees container shipments from Asia guaranteed a specific day of arrival at one of three European gateway ports of Rotterdam, Felixstowe and Bremerhaven, relative to the day of loading – and for which its vast 18,000 teu Triple-E ships currently under construction will serve as the workhorses.

In northern Europe, Wilhelmshaven is, in one respect, in a class of its own – it is the only terminal built with a specific purpose of handling the transhipment needs of the largest vessels (it won’t hold that distinction for long though, not once the new facilities on Rotterdam’s Maasvlakte II open), notwithstanding its plans for local traffic.

Professor Ashar also outlined a fourth revolution (incidentally, at one of the first port conferences I attended, in 1999, and it has stuck in my mind ever since): the development of round-the-world equatorial services deploying bigger ships than the Triple-Es, which constantly circulate the globe loading and unloading containers at key hub ports like a real conveyor belt, creating what he called “a global grid” of container flows.

It sounded like transport sci-fi 13 years ago (at a time when people were scoffing at the idea of 8,000teu ships), but German classification society Germanischer Lloyd confirmed to The Loadstar that designs for vessels of 22,000teu are now more feasible than ever, and – having just seen the shiny facility at Wilhelmshaven – it appears that the revolution continues to be containerised.