Delivering future capacity

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A theme emerging from the recent Intermodal Transport & Logistics 2004 conference in Copenhagen concerned the capacity of the rail network and intermodal terminals to absorb the growth of international combined transport in forthcoming years. The EC’s transport white paper visualises 38% growth in intra-European freight transport volumes over the next decade and points to an 8-15% increase in rail freight market share by 2020.

According to the Commission, heavy goods road traffic will increase by more than 60% during the next ten years if nothing is done. Consequently, road congestion and resulting environmental impact will increasingly become serious issues for the future. Hence, in the interests of greater sustainability, an urgent need was identified to develop and supply the rail/water intermodal capacity that relieves pressure on the road network and meets the future freight volume growth.

The International Union of Railways (UIC) commissioned an evaluation study in 2004 to help it identify measures which should be taken by transport stakeholders – political decision-makers, railways undertakings, operators, infrastructure managers – to ensure the rail network and terminals can accommodate the increased demand for combined transport (road, rail, water). Freight volume forecast and traffic structures were detailed within a 2015 time horizon. The study identified potential bottlenecks (the so-called Achilles heels) in Europe’s freight intermodal infrastructure, and the type of actions required.

Freight interchanges

Increasingly, questions are being raised about the deliverability of essential logistics capacity, especially the expansion of container port or development of intermodal freight interchanges. Nowhere is this issue more pertinent than in Britain, following the planning rejection of two high profile intermodal developments:

lThe proposed London International Freight Exchange (LIFE) rail/road interchange to be located near Heathrow Airport.

lAssociated British Port’s planned £600M ship/rail/road terminal at Dibden Bay, Southampton Port, capable of accommodating super post-Panamax container ships.

Today, any proposal for a development in Britain, especially logistics intermodal-related infrastructure, is likely to attract objections, particularly on environmental grounds. Developers are well aware of the pitfalls involved in any new proposal, especially being subject to Britain’s laborious slow, complicated and archaic planning regulations, coupled with lengthy public planning enquiries.

The result for those concerned will be a mountain of paper work, endless consultations spent on operational and technical detail, numerous legal obstacles to overcome, a time period measured in years and millions in cost. Worse, at the end of the process there is no guarantee that planning consent will be granted. Increasingly, developers are viewing the situation as a high-risk strategy.

Such was the outcome concerning both the LIFE and Dibden Bay proposals. Planning consent was rejected for the LIFE proposal after a four-year application process, costing more than £10M. The Dibden Bay proposal was even more time-consuming and expensive, involving eight years application process at an estimated £40M.

Environmental objections were key determinants in the planning rejection of both these proposals. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was a strong environmental lobby group against Dibden Bay. The fact that the RSPB has established a body called Portwatch specifically to monitor new port developments will not inspire confidence among UK developers.

by ports if they are to both accommodate and attract the super post-Panamax ship.

However, several issues must be considered. Only a very limited number of ports will be able to accommodate super post-Panamax container ships. Furthermore, as ships become larger this will be a significant factor towards reducing the number of direct ports of call. As container ships increase in size they will only be employed on the longest and most profitable routes. As a result it is likely they will be classified as two port of call ships, the home port and destination port.

In practice this type of ship would be expected to operate on a tight 49-day trip cycle from the Far East, with a few defined days allocated for minimum port turnaround loading/unloading activities. From a Far Eastern perspective Europe would be perceived as a One-Stop Port of Call country using a super hub port. Basically, the long distance trunking route from the Far East to Europe is undertaken by the mega container ship, with the onwards (relatively) short distance distribution being carried out by road, rail or feeder ships.

This possibility raises several fundamental questions. Is there a political will in Britain to deliver the required infrastructure capacity or would physical constraints and other factors be too preventative? If so, British ports may be unable to accommodate, or attract, the next generation of container ships, unlike European ports.

These underlying issues were raised in 2003 by the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee in its Review of the Operations of the UK’s Major Ports. The Committee was highly critical of the Government’s lack of guidance or clarity on ports policy, voicing its concern about the need for additional container port capacity in Britain. The Committee also said that ports are the gateways to international trade and a vital part of the supply chain.

Its report emphasised that suitable berths were essential if Britain was to retain direct shipping services, and competitiveness, rather than being served by trans-shipment from continental European ports, such as Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg or Le Harve. The report highlighted the need for super ports, otherwise there was the risk of British ports becoming the backwater of Europe, and losing business to European rivals.

The Committee’s report has to be viewed within a context of a heavily congested island, such as Britain with 60 million population and 30 million road vehicles. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that both population and road vehicles (and the necessary urbanisation and road network infrastructure) are skewed towards the south-eastern part of the country. This presents land space difficulties and implications for any new logistics intermodal developments planned in the South-east.

This matter is particularly relevant, and topical, for the southern ports of Southampton, Felixstowe and Thamesport, which between them account for 80% of Britain’s container movements. Unfortunately, these ports are located in a part of the country, where the rail and road systems are most used and prone to congestion and environmental impact. Also, the imbalance in West- and East-bound container traffic into Britain means that more full containers are imported and a surplus of empties exported, thereby inhibiting efficient use of port land.

In recent months this situation has resulted in southern container ports reaching breaking point, with a lack of dockside space to accommodate lorries, containers (full and empties) and equipment. A mountain of empty containers (requiring re-positioning to the Far East) built up at Southampton and Felixstowe.

At one point Southampton was holding 9,000-plus empty containers awaiting export, compared to a usual 4,500. The British Shippers Council, the Road Haulage Association and Freight Transport Association have been vocal in expressing deep concern about supply chain difficulties and delays being experienced by their members at British container ports.

Offshore logistics

Continental European ports are well aware of future trends, competitive pressures and difficulties confronting British ports. Naturally, European ports would be keen to exploit and capitalise on any new opportunities or challenges. In preparation for forthcoming changes the European ports are gearing up to provide the necessary logistics facilities required by tomorrow’s global markets. In many respects European countries are keen to offer land, supported by grants and other assistance, and if necessary also to provide offshore logistics intermodal facilities for Britain.

Presently, ports such as Rotterdam, Antwerp and Le Harve are continuing with their expansion plans. In September 2004 an 8,500-teu ship called at the Port of Hamburg’s Eurogate Container Terminal. In December 2004 Hamburg announced details for a new container port, costing euro 800M.

The super post-Panamax container ship will most likely herald in a new age for the One-Stop Port and in its wake have knock-on effects for Britain, both in terms of having suitably located intermodal infrastructure and capacity. In the final analysis, whether such ports are located in Britain or Europe, there remains a need for the essential supporting freight intermodal interchanges.

The length of time taken for these facilities to be planned, built and become operational tends to be tediously long, complicated and expensive.

Consequently, slow policy action by officials may result in a capacity shortfall. If so, thought needs to be given as to how best to maintain an efficient and competitive supply chain. The changes now taking place on the logistics landscape should be seen as a wake-up call on the realities and need for action by the political decision makers.

But, this poses the question about the political will (or lack) for action towards the provision of such intermodal facilities?

In the event that a future Britain is served by offshore logistics facilities, does this situation open up new opportunities and challenges for short-sea shipping and Eurotunnel (both sustainable transport modes). Maybe it also means the provision of British-based essential intermodal infrastructure becomes more imperative, if fault lines are not to quickly open up in supply chains. n

Frank Worsford works in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster.

But international trade is of essential importance for Britain’s logistics supply chain, with ports and freight interchanges being vital gateway infrastructure. Britain, as an island economy is dependent upon ports, with more than 95% of the country’s trade being via ports. Furthermore, the world’s container traffic is increasing by more than 5% a year. Today, more than 70% of global trade is done via ships, with an increasing proportion of that trade being container-based. Hence container ports and the logistics infrastructure, such as the provision of strategically located freight intermodal exchanges, will become more vital components of future supply chains for all industry sectors.

Intermodal proposals

2005 marks a crunch time in terms of planning consent being granted (or not) for several large-scale intermodal developments in Britain, including the P&O/Shell proposal at Shellhaven on the Thames, London Gateway; Bathside at Harwich; and Port Salford and Trafford Interchange adjacent to the Manchester Ship Canal (see Fig 1).

These developments would greatly enhance Britain’s logistics intermodal capacity and supply chain competitiveness, while assisting the aspiration of sustainable distribution. Also, there would be further benefits in terms of area regeneration, job creation and a massive injection of new money, measured in billions, flowing into the British economy.

However, in Britain before extra intermodal capacity can be delivered numerous hurdles must be overcome, not the least of which concerns the laborious planning regulations and the length of time and expense that can be incurred in this process without any guarantee of success. This factor may make investors more reluctant in the future to consider investment in Britain, especially if proposed intermodal developments currently in the pipeline cannot be delivered.

This experience is in sharp contrast to that found throughout European countries, especially northern France and the Netherlands where there are fewer hurdles to overcome, and less time and expense required before gaining planning consent. There is also a lower degree risk of planning application rejection.

If anything, European countries are positive and keen to welcome and encourage large-scale logistics developments, compared with the negative attitude found in Britain. Investors might be more tempted to consider offshore developments with the capability to serve Britain. This is not far fetched – we have already seen offshore call centres and banking services moving to India, so why not offshore logistics services to say Europe? In places such as the Netherlands or northern France there is spare land or additional land can be reclaimed from the sea. Furthermore, these countries have adopted an enlightened stance on intermodal facilities, especially port related, having a desire to retain a dominant position in the market – a factor not in Britain’s favour.

Dockside facilities

The old maxim, first to innovate and last to modernise, to explains the present situation of many British ports, especially container ports. In the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century British ports were among the most modern and busiest in the world. Ports built to serve a far-flung empire covering more than a quarter of the globe’s land surface, traded mainly in the export of manufactured goods and importing primary goods.

As such the actual physical infrastructure design of Britain’s main ports (London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Southampton) tended to be linear in layout, usually following a river course. Consequently, British port’s dockside facilities and warehouses tended to be crammed in the remaining available land located between the riverside and local residential property (dockers’ houses), butting against the port boundaries.

While such facilities were adequate for their day, in the post-container age they are now considered obsolete. Physically, portside land tends to be at a premium for future development expansion and severely constrained by existing property infrastructure and natural barriers. In contrast, newly built ports – usually on reclaimed land – are not confronted with the same restrictions, putting continental locations at an advantage.

The continuing increase in ocean-going traffic, economies of scale benefits, and desire to cut unit cost per shipment has resulted in a new breed of larger container ship, the super post-Panamax mega ship ranging upwards from 8,000teus. There are currently 41 such vessels in service worldwide with a further 159 on order or under construction.

By the end of 2007, such vessels are expected to make up 15% of the total fleet in terms of container capacity and will require specifically designed ports, in terms of equipment and operation capability. Europe’s ports are gearing up for their arrival on the market.

Today, the essential technical pre-requisites of the modern container port dictates a large expanse of flat open land with ample space provided to enable high density container stacking, movements and handling equipment, long quays and deep water draught (14m-plus), coupled with excellent receptor facilities, such as road and rail accessibility to/from the port and supporting warehousing – a logistics park. The port will require a strategic market location, preferably close to the EC’s defined “Trans-European Networks and Motorway of the Sea” shipping routes. The capability to allow for 50-teu length trains, preferably able to accommodate the 9ft 6in high cube containers will also be another important consideration. These containers will, in time, dominate the market. Such specifications will be required

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