Containing the containers!

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Historically, the technical breakthrough in intermodal freight transport came with the invention of the modern container (a steel box of a standard size, measured in 20ft equivalent units known as TEUs) by Malcolm Maclean in the 1960s. The introduction of new cargo handling technology in the form of overhead gantry cranes to ensure a standard loading unit, better known as containerisation or unitisation, resulted in a new design of ship and revolutionised freight handling at ports. The new high cost gantry cranes were designed for multimodal use, i.e. ship-to-shore activity for onward transshipment by road and rail.

The widespread introduction of containers brought two big benefits. These included:-

  • The speed in the movement of freight by dramatically improving the throughput (productivity) in ship/port activity. In other words, the number of containers that can be lifted per hour from ship to shore for stacking/transshipment or vice versa.
  • A major improvement in the security of freight. Traditionally, there was a prevalence of damage and pilferage to freight passing through the ports.

Since a large element in the cost of freight movement involves transit time in port, the coming of the container ship effectively reduced this time factor significantly. As such, it is much more economical than the conventional type cargo ship. Basically, the container ship was developed to overcome problems associated with conventional cargo ships.

It has been estimated that a 40,000-tonne container ship can be loaded or discharged within 750 man-hours, using modern gantry crane technology and operational stacking methods. A similar-sized cargo being loaded / discharged in the old days using gangs of dockers working in a shift system and manhandling cargo would require 24,000 man hours. Put another way, ships that routinely spent up to a month in port being unloaded could now be turned around within 48 hours.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s global freight is carried by ship with an increasing proportion now transported by container ship. In 1970 long-haul ocean container traffic had reached six million TEUs (20ft equivalent units), and it is estimated that global traffic is now heading towards the 200 million mark.

The continual upward trend in container traffic worldwide has also been reflected in Britain’s pattern of trade as a major exporting/importing economy. British ports currently handle approximately seven million containers a year with an average 4% annual growth rate during the past decade.

Shipping lines, such as Maersk, handle some 20% of Britain’s total deep-sea container traffic and are responsible for 160,000 containers on inland routes by rail each year. The modal split for onward internal distribution of containers in Britain from the major ports is roughly 75% road and 25% by rail. At the Port of Southampton almost 1,000 containers a day are moved by rail. However, in the interest of greater sustainable distribution there are plans to build up coastal feeder ship traffic in the movement of containers.

The container market in Britain is dominated by a handful of ports; mainly those located in the South-east, including Felixstowe, Southampton, and London. Felixstowe alone is responsible for more than 40% of container movements. Furthermore, due to necessary deepwater draught requirements the new generation of ultra large container ships can only be accommodated at ports such as Felixstowe, Thamesport and Southampton, all incidentally located in the South-east.

However, putting matters into perspective at an international level the British share of the container market is small – only Felixstowe ranks in Top 20 container ports. As a comparison on port container traffic flows, in 2002 Hong Kong had a throughput of more than 19 million containers, Singapore 17 million and Rotterdam 6.5 million.

Rotterdam handles almost as many containers as all the British ports put together. It is also an interesting example due to its maritime position relative to the southern English ports and its potential as a major competitor for the container market. Rotterdam is also one of the few western European ports where the largest container ships can enter fully laden.

Naturally, a port offering first or last port of call facilities for the largest ships gains in commercial advantage, especially if a ship has the capability to enter or leave port fully laden. The map of major north European container terminals indicates the relative share of the market held by the various ports.

British ports are highly conscious of the international competition, especially from ports such as Rotterdam, Hamburg, Bremerhaven, Le Harve, Amsterdam and Antwerp and have geared up accordingly. At the Port of Amsterdam, the world’s first indented container berth has been developed, called Ceres, which is capable of loading / unloading a ship simultaneously from both sides. In response plans had been proposed by ABP to develop a major new container facility at Southampton, known as Dibben Bay. At the mouth of the Thames there have been joint proposals by P&O and Shell to build a large intermodal freight facility, known as London Gateway. Expansion plans continue for Felixstowe and Thamesport. Southampton Container terminals have recently announced plans to raise capacity to two million TEUs per year.

Today, there is much speculation as to the limits of TEU size concerning the next generation of container ships, especially as the present generation in the 5,000-6,000-TEU ranges is no longer considered the norm. For example, Maersk Sealand operates a 6,600-TEU, P&O Nedlloyd a 6,802-TEU, Hapag Lloyd a 7,500-TEU and OCCL 8,063-TEU.

The Evergreen Group placed an order recently for ten post-Panamax ships, each with a capacity for 6,724 TEUs, the first due for delivery in 2005. These ships will be able to carry containers 17 rows athwartships on deck and 15 rows athwartships below decks. Furthermore, Seaspan, the shipping group based in Vancouver, Canada, last year placed an order for five 8,100-TEU ships and has now placed another order for four 9,200-TEU ships.

There are also expectations of even ultra-larger container ships in the future. German ship designer Bureau Veritas expects demand for container ships to double over the next decade and has proposed plans for a 12,500-TEU mega container ship, having a draught of 14.5m and deadweight of 152,000 tonnes. It is argued that such a ship provides economies of scale and harnesses innovative technical solutions to enable greater TEU-carrying capacity.

A recent study commissioned by Lloyd’s Register concluded that ultra large container ships of up to 12,500 TEUs are feasible and could be in service by 2010.

As the next generation of container ships come on stream the situation will present enormous challenges and pressures for the logistics industry, and in particular for the ports. These include:

  • The development of sophisticated computer technology to control, track and trace the movement of large number of containers within a confined space, for loading / discharging within a limited time period, taking full account of the position of the hazardous products and containers in different weight and size categories.
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