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The box port battle in the UK took a new turn last week when Dutch shortsea operator A2B-online appeared to opt for Thamesport over Tilbury in its choice of southern hub for its services to the Netherlands port of Moerdijk.

However, Tilbury’s management claim the port had rejected a request from A2B to service its vessels.

A press release from A2B-online, a copy of which has been obtained by The Loadstar, announcing the end-of-January launch of the service at Thamesport stated that the port of Tilbury’s London Container Terminal (LCT) was also considered or the southern hub, but “could not guarantee the high levels of service that we expect from a terminal”.

“Not so,” Angela Black, head of commercial at the Forth Ports-owned LCT, told The Loadstar.

“We actually declined the business, as it did not fit with our development plans.”

Ms Black said that having “successfully bedded down” the transfer of OPDR’s services from Felixstowe, the next three months would see LCT decommissioning two older ship-to-shore gantry cranes on the inside berth to be replaced by state-of-the-art equipment.

The new Paceco cranes are being assembled on site and have been designed specifically for shortsea and mid-sea trades, with a maximum reach across the deck of 14 containers, and spreaders easily adaptable to accommodate the ubiquitous shortsea-favoured 45ft container.

April 1 is the target date for the refurbished terminal, when, said Ms Black, LCT would begin pitching for new business – there are “a number of blue-chip shortsea and feeder operators” on the radar.

Meanwhile, a spin-off from winning the OPDR business has been two new customers for LCT: feeder operator Team Lines and Deutsche Afrika-Linien (DAL), a Germany-Africa trade specialist as a result of slot charter agreements with OPDR.

DAL, a member of the South Africa Europe Container Service (SAECS), left the Tilbury terminal when SAECS moved down the river to London Gateway in October.

Nonetheless, the launch of the new A2B-online service was welcome news for the Medway’s Thamesport.

The Hutchinson Ports-owned facility lost the majority of its business to rival ports over the past year in a no-holds-barred fight for carriers.

Indeed, with its only remaining services being offered by CMA CGM-owned intra-Europe operator MacAndrews, and a weekly call from a BG Freight feeder on behalf of former customer Evergreen, rumours had been circulating in the industry that the facility would be mothballed by its owner.

That speculation intensified over Christmas and new year when, with ships unable to discharge at Felixstowe due to high winds, operators diverted their vessels to DP World’s London Gateway. The presumption was that major Felixstowe clients such as Maersk and MSC were not offered the option of discharging at Thamesport, or that Thamesport could not have handled the diverted ships or their cargo.

A2B-online, led by ex-Geest North Sea Line executive Gerard de Groot, started a thrice-weekly service between Moerdijk – about 30 miles from Rotterdam and 60 from Antwerp – and the north-east UK general cargo port of Immingham in June last year. A2B deployed the 340teu Veritas in a brave venture, where many have failed in the past, built on the industry veteran’s extensive knowledge and contacts in the shortsea sector.

It has now chartered the 340teu MS Expansa to operate between Thamesport and Moerdijk.

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