China Shipping Container Lines’ recent order for 5 x 18,400 teu vessels signals another round of vessel upsizing. For ports, the impact will be felt way beyond the Asia-Europe trade lane.
Although it seemed just a matter of time before others again followed Maersk’s lead on big ship innovation, CSCL’s recent order for 5 x 18,400 teu vessels, with delivery in 2H14, confirms the well-established trend. The more so as UASC will be ordering the other five required for a weekly service between Asia and Europe.
So what does this mean for the ports that are expected to handle them? Is it time to ring the alarm bells, or will it just be business as usual? The answer is not black and white.
The most expensive factors for ports are vessel draft and vessel length. Dredging of berths and channels and pouring concrete for quay walls comes at a high cost, not to mention the planning and environmental hurdles that have to be crossed. What is, relatively speaking, easier to deal with is increasing vessel beams. Gantry cranes with longer outreaches do not come cheap, but they are usually a lot easier to put in place than new berths or deeper water.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the 18,000 teu ships on the stocks are no longer than the 400 metres of their 15,000 and 16,000 teu counterparts already in service. Nor is their design draft any greater – indeed it is likely that for most port calls, cargo mix will mean that the 18,000 teu vessels will have operating drafts of no more than 14-15m despite their quoted 16m design maximum. Much depends on the average weight of cargo and where in the port rotation particular ports are placed.
Although a draft of 14-15m is deep, even ports like Hamburg and Antwerp, which have significant draft and tidal restrictions due to their long river passages, are still very much in the big ship game. Hamburg has already hosted calls by the 16,000 teu CMA CGM Marco Polo class for example, and Antwerp has accommodated Maersk’s 15,500 teu E class vessels, as well as a host of MSC’s 14,000 teu ships. Certainly not as straightforward and flexible as calling at Rotterdam’s virtually unrestricted Maasvlakte for example, but not “sized out” of the game either.
However, the 18,000 teu ships are getting wider, so crane outreach is more critical. The Triple E 18,000 teu vessels are 23 boxes wide for example, whereas the Maersk E class is 22 wide and the CMA CGM Marco Polo class is 21 boxes wide. Most of the major ports on the Asia-Europe route, including wayports in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, have already deployed bigger gantry cranes, or are taking steps to do so, but only to varying degrees. Even in the worst case, if a terminal still only has an outreach of 20 boxes outreach, ships can be stowed accordingly, or turned around on the quay.
In purely physical terms, the implications of 18,000 teu ships operating between Asia and Europe will not be that different from today’s big ships therefore. Ports can either accommodate them with no problem, or carriers can work around limitations. It is unlikely that any of the main Asia-Europe ports will find themselves out of the game simply for reasons of physical capability.
The 18,000 teu ships do have other implications, however, and not just for the Asia-Europe ports.
The ever larger ships will strain the operational capability of ports, with a requirement to deliver faster handling speeds in order to maintain turnaround times. The fact that ships are not getting any longer is making this more challenging because simply deploying proportionately more cranes is not an option. In addition, handling such ships is not just about the quayside performance. The yard and landside also has to be able to keep up, including intermodal capacity. At the same time, ever larger ships also continue the pressure for more alliances and cooperation between carriers in order to fill them, and so ports face the challenge of greater concentration of volume.
Last but not least there will be greater cascading. The deployment of 18,000 teu vessels on the Asia-Europe route means that a greater number of larger vessels will be cascaded onto other east-west routes, north-south trades and intra-regional trades. This is where the pain of growing ship sizes is likely to be more keenly felt by ports.