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The port of Antwerp has formed a committee to tackle the severe barge congestion hampering major European container gateways.

The move came as port chief executive Jacques Vandermeiren warned that greater capacity was required to meet surging demand.

Antwerp’s head of intermodality & hinterland, Pascale Pasmans, said the port was “well aware” of delays to barge services– “the consequence of a number of factors, including a shortage of dock labour and handling capacity as a result of rising volumes of shipping”.

He added that a consultation meeting had been held with supply chain partners on 6 July, and that together they had signed a declaration of intent to improve efficiency and throughput of barges.

“In the short term, these parties will collaborate in defining the challenges that have to be overcome in order to make structural improvements to the handling process,” said Mr Pasmans.

“Under our leadership the parties will strive to complete this by the beginning of October and define a set of initiatives aimed at making structural improvements to the process in the coming months.”

The committee includes representatives from shipping companies, terminal and barge operators, shippers, forwarders, Voka/Alfaport, Antwerp Port Authority and the Flemish government.

In the wake of the ongoing congestion, several barge operators have implemented surcharges, as well as container carrier Hapag-Lloyd. Contargo imposed a €19.50 per teu fee until 31 August and The Loadstar has found that both Danser and Barge Terminal Born (BTB) have imposed surcharges. Unlike Contargo, neither Danser nor BTB indicated how long the surcharge would be applied.

From tomorrow, BTB – which has been in discussions with the port authority – will apply a €15 per full container fee on twice-weekly sailings between Born and Rotterdam, and Born and Antwerp.

“For a longer period we are being confronted with major problems in the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp concerning the handling of our barges,” the company said in a statement. “They are delayed by between 24 and 72 hours, with peak delays rising up to as much as five days for some specific terminals.”

The operator said it had chartered extra barges and been handling 24/7, and said that until now it had absorbed all additional costs.

“But we can’t afford this anymore. This surcharge doesn’t cover all costs resulting from the delays and doesn’t guarantee a better handling of import and export containers.

“It only distributes the negative consequences which cannot be carried by just one party in the supply chain. We regret this decision but in view of the above we are forced to take this measure for the continuity of our services and hope the situation returns to normal as soon as possible.”

Danser is applying a €25 per teu fee to Upper Rhine shipments, with €7.50 levied against shipments between Antwerp and Rotterdam; while intra-port services will also be subject to a €5.50 surcharge.

Both operators blamed the delays on the upscaling of deepsea vessels, larger and unexpected calls, volume growth, restructuring of container alliances and staff shortages.

Danser said: “For that reason, it is impossible to continue our business in this way. The extra costs occurred by the poor handling of our barges can no longer only be absorbed by us.”

At Antwerp, the congestion soured a strong half-year performance, with 2.8% more freight handled in the six months to June. Container volumes grew 1.9% year-on-year to 5.1m teu. And while the number of ships calling declined 1.4% to 7,137, vessel size was on the up with gross tonnage growing 3.2% to 205.3 million.

While praising the performance, Mr Vandermeiren warned these volumes demonstrated the need for additional container capacity in the port of Antwerp.

“We will do everything necessary to give the port companies the oxygen that they need in order to prosper,” he said. “Our companies create employment, not only within the port itself but also far beyond. We have to keep supplying this engine of employment in Flanders.”

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  • Gunther Ginckels

    July 19, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    A good initiative and long due. CEO Jacques Vandermeiren is a hands-on leader and while only 6 months in seat he makes the right decisions. Will it be easy – absolutely not! Already since 2014 a study made by SEASC4U ( http://www.seasc4u.com ) revealed the challenges for inland navigation in the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam and offered possible solutions ( http://www.seasc4u.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Study-Concept-Barge-ARA_2014_V-1.3.pdf ). Fragmentation in the Barge owners sector with over 7000 barges where 70% of the barge companies own less than 3 ships, Inland Barge Terminal owners / operators acting as brokers owning few barges of their own, operators focusing on load patterns with no regard to the problems the discharge sequence creates at Ocean terminals and the lack of sufficient barge handling capacity in the ports are few of the problems hindering the development of inland navigation in the ARA – Rhine-Ruhr area blessed with the best inland waterways network in the world. Lack of labour is a re-occurring issue in the summer period which Unions and Labour Pool CEPA seems unable to handle year after year. In the committee, we see again the manifest absence of the barge owners. The Contargo’s, Danser’s, Nedcargo’s etc… continue to load barges at their inland terminal serving up to 4 to 5 ocean port terminals with average less than 15 containers to be handled and are thus part of the problem. The Ocean Terminals lack the courage of claiming the real fixed cost of handling a barge regardless the number of moves. Cargo owners ignore the problems as many have a direct carrier’s haulage contract with the shipping lines. The Container carriers pay the congestion surcharges and add the cost to their already stressed profitability. The recent Triple-E class ULCV’s with 20,000 TEU capacity dumping up to 5,000 TEU in a 24 hrs window have not contributed to resolving these challenges.