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At least three new Asia-US east coast all-water services via the Panama Canal are set to be launched by carriers capitalising on increased demand from shippers looking for alternatives to US west coast ports and the resulting high spot rates, according to Alphaliner.

Driven by terminal congestion on the US Pacific seaboard, spot rates from Asia to the US east coast spiked to record highs of over $5,000 per 40ft in February – more than two-and-a-half times the norm for the transpacific tradelane.

Since this month’s agreement of a new five-year labour contract for the 29 west coast ports, spot rates for the east coast have softened a little – but at around $4,500 per 40ft, they are still significantly more attractive to carriers than the $1,800 on offer for west coast ports.

Moreover, with fuel prices still falling – global bunker prices recorded another sharp drop yesterday – the extra mileage required to serve the American east coast has become more affordable for carriers.

The combination of higher rates and cheaper fuel is a win-win for carriers. Indeed, from January Israeli carrier Zim began deploying three of its surplus 8,000-10,000 teu ships operating ad-hoc sailings between Asia and North Europe onto the Asia-US east coast route via Suez, in a tramp shipping-style operation.

Alphaliner reported today that from the end of the month, the CKYHE alliance – with the possible exception of K Line which has yet to confirm its participation – will commence a new service from North China to the US east coast ports of Savannah and Charleston, operated by nine panamax vessels of between 4,200-5,000 teu.

Dubbed the NUE3 service by Evergreen and the AWS/AWE-S service by other partners, the itinerary will also call at the South Korean hub of Busan and make a double call at Colon, Panama, on exiting and entering the waterway.

This will be followed in May by the unwinding of the G6 alliance and Zim’s joint SCE/NYE service, which had previously been combined for the winter slack season – the revived NYE service deploying 10 panamax ships between north-east Asia and US east coast and Gulf ports.

A third service will also start in May, operated by CMA CGM, Hamburg Sud and UASC, which will deploy 15 panamax vessels on an Asia-USEC-north Europe pendulum string, with UASC’s participation initially limited to the transatlantic leg.

Alphaliner calculated that in total the new services will result in around 6% of extra capacity being deployed between Asia and the US east coast, all of which will route via the Panama Canal, given the focus on cargo from north China.

The 34 extra ships required for the new and revived loops is good news for panamax container vessel owners, who might have expected to see demand for ad-hoc voyages between Asia and the US east coast taper off as port congestion on the west coast eases.

The routing of the new loops is also a significant boost for the Panama Canal Authority, which is working to regain traffic lost to the Suez Canal over the past few years.

Furthermore, the Panama Canal could reasonably expect to see the current size of vessels serving these loops increase to 8,000-10,000 teu, and even to the maximum of 13,000 teu, after the expansion work is concluded in April 2016.

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