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Record volume at Antwerp port sends delay warning


By : Greg Knowler, Senior Europe Editor


It is another bad news, good news statistic for Antwerp (above) and Rotterdam. The bad: an intermodal operator has warned that barge congestion is already causing delays of up to 36 hours at Antwerp and 72 hours at Rotterdam. The good: container volume growth continues to shine.


The Port of Antwerp is fast reaching its maximum capacity as record growth in volume continues to flood into North Europe’s hub ports, an ominous sign for shippers already struggling with often lengthy delays in shifting containers from deepsea terminals to inland destinations. Europe’s No. 2 port of Antwerp saw container throughput soar 8.2 percent to 5.57 million TEU in the first six months of the year compared with 2017, while the region’s busiest port of Rotterdam reported a 6.2 percent increase in first half volume to 7 million TEU. Both ports recorded record volume in May, and in the first quarter Rotterdam actually grew its market share compared with other Northern Range ports from 30.9 percent to 31.2 percent. But the growing volume entering Europe via the north and Mediterranean ports in the south has been placing the intermodal network under increasing pressure, with barge congestion, road bottlenecks, and rail delays experienced at many points. With Antwerp approaching its maximum capacity, those shipper frustrations could become even more acute. Port Authority CEO Jacques Vandermeiren said the strong performance of Antwerp was good news for the Belgian economy in general and the volume figures confirmed the port’s attractiveness to shippers. But he issued a stark warning, saying that the figures also confirm forecasts that the port will soon reach its maximum container capacity. “During the past period we have well exceeded the optimum utilization level for the terminals below the locks, which can have a negative impact on efficiency. We will therefore continue to emphasize the importance of having additional and commercially useful container capacity below the locks,” he said. A growing consequence of the flood of containers is barge congestion that also affects the port of Rotterdam. Both ports have a wide network of waterways that enable containers to be moved inland at a lower cost than the road or rail alternatives. About 25 percent of the arriving in each port are transported from the deepsea terminals to inland terminals by barge, but the huge number of barge operators is clogging the system. Thijs van den Heuvel, operations director for Combi Terminal Twente, an inland terminal in the Netherlands that handles about 330,000 TEU a year, said the eight deepsea terminals at Rotterdam had several operators and 600 barges with 150 different owners. The many deepsea and inland terminals have the effect of fragmenting container volume on both sides and adding to the incredible layer of complexity involved in managing the barge transport. Both Rotterdam and Antwerp have implemented initiatives to try to get on top of the barge congestion that intermodal operator Contargo said was currently resulting in delays of up to 36 hours at Antwerp and 72 hours at Rotterdam. To tackle the problem, each of the deepsea terminals in Antwerp will make a certain number of dedicated barge berths available with dedicated barge gangs to handle the volume. Barges will have central planning to manage schedules, with the three large terminals (PSA, MPET, and DP World) carrying out a large-scale trial to deal with barge scheduling on a portwide basis, which is aimed at simplifying and streamlining the entire scheduling process for all parties. A pilot project will be tested from September onward, and if the results are positive it will be continued. Antwerp's deepsea terminals will also not handle barges with fewer than 30 moves in a trial period that begins in October. The idea is to set up consolidation centers away from the port at inland terminals, and the Port of Antwerp has pledged to offer financial support at the inland terminals where that consolidation takes place. Rotterdam is working on the planning tool Nextlogic, which should be operational by the end of the year and will allow barges to input information on terminals they need to call at and the number of containers to be picked up, and terminals to enter the capacity they have available to handle barges. The planning tool will direct barges in a particular order in real time so when there is a delay, the barge calls will be rerouted or rescheduled. Rotterdam is also investing €175 million ($205 million) in an internal road system, or container exchange route, that will connect the five deepsea terminals at the Maasvlakte area. It means containers moving between the terminals will not need to move outside the gate requiring customs documentation, so if a barge has to pick up one or two TEU from a terminal, the containers can be transported by the internal road to an area where bundling of the volume could take place. Consolidating barge volume is crucial to cutting down the port traffic and reducing bottlenecks. Fewer but larger barges with point-to-point connections will call at one terminal with maybe 100 to 200 TEU, meaning fewer small exchanges and fewer vessels to manage. But increasing capacity at the major ports without building additional capacity downstream at inland terminals will not solve the problem, and Antwerp’s port alderman Marc Van Peel echoed the comments of the CEO in calling for greater focus on this area. “Creating additional commercially useful container capacity below the locks is a first step for us in the further development of the port,” he said. “Everybody stands to gain from a solution that will enable us to achieve the desired sustainable growth for our port.”

 

 

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