Container ships

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The new type of ship was dedicated to carry only containers, specifically to take dry and packed products, but not to replace the bulk or oil carriers. Essentially, container ships were capable of taking on board thousands of steel boxes, each with its own intact content, such as high value goods (spirits, cigarettes and other high value products), while at the same time reducing the risk of damage and pilferage. In short, freight in containers was less at risk.

The traditional cargo ship, in terms of size, was measured by the volume of tonnage carried – i.e. classified as a 1,000 or 10,000-tonne ship. In contrast container ships are measured in size by the number of TEUs carried. In the 1960s when containers were introduced, ships carried a mixture of both traditional cargo and containers. However, this soon changed and by the early 1970s all-container ships were being designed and built. These were known as the first generation of container ships and were able to transport between 1,500 and 2,000 TEUs. These were soon replaced by the second generation of container ships in the mid-1980s with a 3,000-TEU capacity.

Over the years, the TEU carry capacity of ships gradually and continually increased in scale. For example, in the mid-1980s the second generation of all container ships came into service, this time having a 3,000-TEU capacity. But, within a few years even this size had been exceeded by another generation in the 4,000-TEU ranges, only to be soon overtaken by 5,000-TEU ships.

The rapid growth in size in container ship has caught many in the industry by surprise. Until 1988 all container ship owners chose to limit ship parameters (ship length, breath and draught) to that compatible with the Panama Canal lock dimensions (principally a 32.2m ship beam).

Effectively, this meant that ships built above these dimensions were unable to use the short-cut canal connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As such, the decision was a significant step towards promoting the new generation of ships. Henceforth, ships were no longer designed and limited in size by the Panama Canal dimensions and became known as post-Panamax size. nSource: Adapted from Maritime Statistics, Department for Transport, 2003.

  • The development of appropriate port gantry crane technology will be an essential pre-requisite if greater benefits are to accrue from the ship size economies of scale, such as higher productivity levels and lower transport cost per unit. Larger ships mean wider ships, having more rows and layers of containers. Gantry cranes will become bigger in size, have a greater hoisting height, coupled with capability to reach across wider rows of parked containers.
  • The availability of deep-water locations that are suitable for ultra-large ships can be a limiting factor. The new generation of container ships require a water draught of 14m to 16m in depth, perhaps more, in addition to adequate space for manoeuvrability.
  • The aspect of land space at the port terminal. This has to be sufficiently large enough to provide enough pre-storage space for containers and for immediate short-term space of discharged containers, space for trains and trucks to load / discharge, in addition to space for cranes and stackers. Without adequate logistics interface facilities there is massive potential for delays and port congestion.
  • Account also needs to be taken not only of bigger container ships, but changes in marine technology which will result in hi-tech and fast speed ships, quicker loading / unloading times, greater economies of scale and lower delivery cost per unit.

The growth in container ship size up to 8,000-TEU (and beyond) capacity is leading to the need for mega or super hub ports. These ports will need to be capable of handling deep-sea draft (above 14m) for the new generation of giant ships and also having the appropriate handling facilities and landside space, with good transport links.

These challenges and pressures are well recognised in British industry and official circles. A report issued by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee in November 2003 highlighted the importance of the UK’s port industry. A particular issue of concern in the report was the lack of capacity and the need for additional container port capacity in the UK.

The report emphasised that suitable berths were essential if the UK is to retain direct shipping services, and competitiveness, rather than being served by transshipment for continental European ports, such as Rotterdam, Le Havre and Hamburg. Therefore the need for super ports in Britain becomes more essential, otherwise there is the risk of British ports becoming the backwater of Europe and losing business to European rival ports.

The Government, responding to the Select Committee’s report, acknowledged the threat of competition from continental ports and the need for extra berth capacity at British ports. UK port operators want the Government to decide which super ports will solve the deepwater capacity problems and serve the next generations of ultra large container ships. This is necessary to put British ports in the super league in line with our European counterparts, and a more competitive and advantageous position for the future.

Britain has never had a proper ports policy. In Europe land is made available for port expansion to assist with modernisation and competition, whereas in Britain every square foot of port expansion land involves a long and expensive procedure. If Britain does not develop its own super ports, the country could end up being the spoke of some French or Dutch super hub port. In short the Isle of Wight of Europe. An enviable position for some, but not for a once powerful maritime nation. n

Frank Worsford works in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster.Source: Adapted from Container Management.

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