antwerp © Daniël Leppens
© Daniël Leppens

Port of Antwerp stakeholders have committed to improving barge transport services at the Belgian gateway, signing up to “a roadmap of structural changes”.

The agreement comes nine months after a declaration of intent to address logjams that left some shipments waiting more than a week to be unloaded.

Chief executive Jacques Vandermeiren said financial and operational investments pledged under the new agreement attested to how seriously the issue was being taken.

“This mode of transport is a crucial player in the economical, sustainable and mobility friendly model that the port of Antwerp aims for,” he said. “I would like to thank all parties involved for their unremitting efforts, their expertise and their final result.

“This is an excellent, future-oriented plan that will benefit the entire port and the barge community.”

Over the past month, barges have continued to experience long delays and yesterday Contargo warned customers its vessels were facing delays of 24-36 hours.

SeasC4U’s Gunther Ginckels told The Loadstar the decisions taken by the port authority were the right ones to address the problem.

“Let us not moan that it has taken so long and, above all, let us not pretend that it will not change anything,” said Mr Ginckels. “So far, I’d consider these efforts as an eight-out-of-ten, but, as Frere Jacques says, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’.”

Under the agreement, the inland terminals will apply an integrated planning approach as well as the reintroduction of a barge traffic system (BTS). Importantly, the deal also includes a pledge to consolidate freight volumes, which the port said would make it possible for barges to have larger call sizes at shipping terminals.

“Here too, there will be a trial period as of October, during which the minimum call size has been set at 30 containers,” said a port authority spokesperson.

“To help barges transition to larger calls, the government and the port authority have introduced temporary operational and financial subsidies which will gradually taper off.”

Efforts are  also under way to improve the digitisation and centralisation of data, which the spokesperson said would “permit more proactive planning and follow-up”.

According to the port, IT service provider NxtPort will take the lead in implementing this digital strategy but Mr Ginckels called on it not to “reinvent the wheel”.

“We should see what ICT solutions are already on the shelf that can be rolled out instantly – which would reduce the need for major cultural changes,” he said. “The process will benefit from the earliest possible exchange and sharing of information, and it remains to be seen whether NxtPort can play a role in this.”

Additionally, the port authority said, it would be working on various “peripheral” measures to improve efficiencies, including ways of dealing with dock labour shortages.

However, Mr Ginckels suggested these measures – which have included a recent campaign to make working in the port more attractive – were “too little, too late”.

“[The port] really needed one year and 40 workshops to take action and overcome this acute shortage,” he added. “The sun is already shining; it will soon be summer holidays again and the trade unions don’t give a damn that there is insufficient working capacity.”

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