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Despite a near record container throughput last year, the port of Hamburg’s growth is likely to be hobbled by further delays in the courts to the urgently needed widening and deepening of the River Elbe.

“We have already waited far too long for the start of dredging,” complained Ingo Egloff, chief executive of the port’s marketing executive board.

Mr Egloff said that, with 507 calls in 2014, there had been a 24% year-on-year increase in ULCVs with slot capacities in excess of 10,000 teu at Hamburg, and cautioned that the patience and loyalty of ocean carriers was being tested to the limit given the hub’s current loading and sailing draught restrictions.

Referring to the years of legal procrastination that has stymied the dredging of the Lower and Outer Elbe, Mr Egloff vented his frustration, suggesting that the need for the work must now be recognised by “even the most obstinate opponents of modification of the channel”.

Mr Egloff hopes approval for the dredging will come from the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig in the spring, and that the two-year project to deepen the Elbe’s navigation channel by a metre and construct a 385-metre-wide passing channel will be able to start this year.

With the Berlin government developing a new infrastructure plan for the country, Mr Egloff is lobbying for German seaports to be given “top priority”, and specifically for money for the upgrading of inland waterways.

Hamburg’s container terminals processed 9.7m teu in 2014, a 5.1% increase on the previous year and just shy of its record pre-financial crisis performance in 2008.

Elsewhere, Europe’s largest container port, Rotterdam, reached 12.3m teu last year, up 5.8% on 2013 while third-ranked Antwerp’s throughput increased by 4.7% to 9m teu.

Hamburg’s trade with China accounted for almost one third of its entire container throughput and was up 9.8% on the previous year at 3m teu. But there were other significant growth areas, such as Poland – up 22.6% at 395,000 teu – and trade with India increasing by 14.9% to 232,000 teu.

Offsetting that were problems with its trade with Russia, where sanctions, the declining rouble value and the collapse of oil prices impacted the second half of the year, when Russian throughput was down 7.8% on 2013 at 662,000 teu.

Hamburg’s biggest terminal operator, HHLA, increased its throughput by a modest 1.2% on 2013, to reach 7.2m teu handled at its three facilities, citing a reduction in feeder traffic with Russia as the reason for the disappointing growth.

Its operation in the Ukrainian port of Odessa was hit by the ongoing conflict in the country, with throughput down some 30% year-on-year to around 300,000 teu.

Germany’s largest terminal operator, Eurogate, processed 2.3m teu across its Hamburg quays, up an impressive 16.7% on the year before, and chairman Emanuel Schiffer reinforced the comments of Mr Egloff.

Eurogate hosted the once biggest containership in the world, the 19,100 teu CSCL Globe, at Hamburg on 16 January and is expecting the call of its successor to the title, the 19,224 teu MSC Oscar, at Wilhelmshaven in early March.

Mr Schiffer said: “The forecasts have proved correct. Our customers are calling at our container ports with ever larger container vessels. It presents considerable challenges for the infrastructure of seaports as well as the superstructure of container terminal operators.”

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