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The role of Antwerp as a north-west European hub port for the proposed P3 Alliance took another step forward this week after the port authority announced that it was to proceed with discussions with P3 partner MSC on the development of a new terminal.

MSC is already Antwerp’s largest container customer, with a throughput last year of 4.6m teu, which represented more than half of the port’s total. Late last year the line applied to develop new facilities in the Deurganck dock area.

Currently, its traffic goes through the MSC Home Terminal, located behind the Berendrecht lock, the largest maritime lock in the world. The terminal is operated by the carrier in conjunction with local Port Singapore affiliate PSA-HNN.

In a statement, the port authority said: “MSC announced in 2013 that in order to accommodate future growth in the port of Antwerp it wished to move its operations to the Deurganck dock as it had already reached its limits in the Delwaide dock, not only in terms of terminal capacity but also in terms of the size of ships. When MSC introduces vessels of 16,000teu and 18,000teu in the near future it will be impossible for these to be handled behind the Berendrecht lock.”

That was followed by a period of consultation with the port’s other stakeholders and possible investors to determine whether there were other projects or proposals of equal or greater merit.

“Based on the results of the enquiry, it now appears that no alternatives of similar importance are proposed. The port authority board of directors has therefore granted authority to the management committee – with power of subdelegation – to carry out further discussions with the stakeholders concerned, in order to consider the way in which the proposed MSC project can be carried out in the port of Antwerp and in the Deurganck dock in particular,” the statement added.

However, some port observers have pointed out that tey believe the lock’s dimensions would still be enough for the latest ultra-large containerships ships to pass through it.

“At high water, the depth over the sill is nearly 18 metres, and the draught on the berths at the MSC Home terminal is 15.6 metres. So it’s not draught that’s the primary issue, it’s the terminal capacity,” one said.

However, he added that given the size of MSC’s business in the port and its need for greater operating efficiencies, it was always going to be difficult for the port authority to turn down its request.

“It seems highly likely that the port authority will give them what they want, given their importance to the port,” he said. “And it is true that for the biggest ships, it’s always going to be easier to berth at a riverside terminal than have to lock in and out, especially when arrival and sailing times are critical in terms of the tide.”

Of course, MSC’s relocation – and, by proxy, its P3 partners, should the vessel-sharing agreement receive regulatory approval – would create a hole in the Delwaide operations: either an opportunity for new container carriers to enter the Antwerp business, or for the port to convert it to some other type of cargo operation.

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