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It was a still and sunny day at Felixstowe last Friday, providing some respite from the storms that battered the UK over Christmas and the first days of 2014. The good weather allowed the country’s biggest container port to attack the backlog of ships laden with imports, which had put the supply chain under severe stress.

Faced with the prospect of joining long queues for berths as Felixstowe suffered significant downtime in gale force winds, several ships were diverted to the UK’s newest deep sea container terminal at London Gateway on the River Thames.

At the last count there were more than 5,000 containers landed at the DP World facility that were originally manifested for discharge at Felixstowe, causing administrational and logistical headaches for the local offices of ocean carriers.

The problems were exacerbated by last-minute operational decisions made by carriers’ tonnage centres in Europe, which in some cases were not communicated with their UK subsidiaries until agreement had been reached with London Gateway for acceptance of the vessels.

These eleventh-hour decisions, combined with the time of the year and the steep learning curve for London Gateway, resulted in what one operator described as “organised chaos” with, according to anecdotal reports, one particular major carrier refusing to answer questions from frustrated cargo owners, despite its so-called customer charter commitments.

But weather-related problems were not the sole preserve of Felixstowe. Elsewhere, the Honda factory at Swindon ground to a halt due to the delay of containers expected through the port of Southampton.

The car giant’s factory at South Marston halted its production line last Wednesday after running out of vital components, and the replenished stock eventually arrived at the south coast port last Thursday with production resuming today.

Honda suffered similar stoppages in 2011 after the tsunami and earthquake in Japan and floods in Thailand disrupted the production of electronic items.

Unplanned stoppages can be eye-wateringly expensive. It has been calculated that a suspended production line at Nissan’s plant in the north east of the UK could potentially cost the Japanese company £6,000 per minute or £8.6m per day in lost earnings.

It is little surprise therefore, given the amount at stake, that during the operational challenges over the Christmas holidays there were even instances where urgent components were ferried by helicopter from European ports to shipper premises.

Among the carrier community at Felixstowe opinion on London Gateway appears to be divided. Some acknowledged the usefulness of another UK port option for discharging vessels, rather than the cargo being landed at Rotterdam or Antwerp, while others complained that the facility has to quickly gear up to overcome the many operational hitches that have occurred.

Moreover, the supply chain does not like change: least of all in haulage, where truckers sitting at the sharp end of substantial waiting times caused by procedural documentation or customs delays are generally the first to lodge complaints about the ability of a port.

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  • Martin Rayner

    January 13, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Sorry to nit pick, but I don’t think “administrational” is actually a word. Perhaps “administrative” would be better…

    • Gavin van Marle

      January 14, 2014 at 10:42 am

      We welcome nit-picking readers, and every correction they bring to our attention, but this one is a conundrum: The behemoth New Oxford English Dictionary that sits by the foot of my desk has no record of administrational. But some online dictionaries do. I suspect it might be accepted in American English. Wiktionary lists it as a synonym of administrative here. Hmm, one to ponder on…