Ports congestion reduced but problems remain

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The combination of a fall in trade and increased capacity at the principal deep-sea container ports has meant that severe congestion experienced by the UK in 2004 has been much reduced this year. However, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) warns that complacency must be avoided and that ports procedures must be further improved in order to avoid the sort of problems experienced in the past.

Dr Andrew Traill, head of rail freight, maritime and air cargo policy, for the FTA, made these comments when speaking at the ‘Tackling Ports and Infrastructure Congestion’ conference at the Barbican Centre, London. Dr Traill said that in the lead up to Christmas in 2004, in the face of high consumer demand, more goods than ever seemed to be trying to squeeze through the few deep-sea container ports in and around the South-East of England, and onto the already congested and capacity constrained road and rail network. This resulted in delays to ships, trains, lorries and above all, delays to the freight.

In 2005 the FTA brought together representatives from all sides of the logistics industry, including the deep-sea container shipping lines and the ports industry, in order to suggest solutions. In doing so, a raft of broken or malfunctioning links in the supply chain was identified. The carriers did not know what the customer wanted, the ports did not know what was coming to them and road haulage arrived at ports to deliver or pick up containers at the wrong time.

Dr Traill said: “Few people seemed to view the complete picture. In a supply chain, there are a number of different parties with a particular job to do. As the ball gets passed to different players in a football team, so the freight gets passed along the chain. In a successful team each player knows exactly what to do with the ball, where they fit in the play, where everyone else is and, ultimately, where the ball needs to end up – in the goal. This seems to be more difficult with freight!” He goes on to say that: “What we need is more teamwork. This summer, representatives of shippers, ports, carriers, and the rail and logistics industries produced a document that highlighted areas in which players in the supply chain all needed to work in order for the chain to operate effectively and efficiently. And just because the demand this Christmas appears to be less, and the congestion more manageable, does not mean that the problems have gone away.” He also went on to comment that: “We still have inefficiencies in the chain, which means that unnecessary costs are being incurred. Last year those inefficiencies were exposed; this year they are not so obvious because the peak-season volumes are down. However, the whole industry needs to act now before those failings are exposed again. Industry must not waste this opportunity to eradicate those problems, regardless of whether trade volumes on the scale of last year, or higher, occur again. Inefficiency is inefficiency – it is not just for Christmas but all year round.”

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