Following the news that the 18,000-teu CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin will call at the Port of Los Angeles becoming the largest containership to call in the US, industry analyst Drewry claimed US West Coast ports are not ready to handle Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCVs) regularly.
According to the analyst, West Coast ports have much work to do to improve productivity before being in the position to see ULCVs call on “anything other than an ad-hoc basis”.
The French carrier’s new ship, which will call at the port on December 26, will join the Asia-US West Coast ‘Pearl River Express’ service, part of the company’s Ocean Three network, which usually operates with 11,400 teu ships.
Although it is not known yet whether the ship’s call at the Port of Los Angeles is just a trial-run, the analyst pointed out that the same vessel is expected to call at the Port of Long Beach in February 2016.
Drewry claimed that while the story is largely “a public relations exercise”, it is significant since the ULCVs have until now only been viable in the Asia-Europe route and an additional deployment option would give shipping lines increased operational flexibility.
According to Drewry, the current vessel upsizing trend in the Asia-United States West Coast (USWC) route will continue to grow as shipping lines like Maersk Line and China Shipping Container Lines Co., Ltd (CSCL) ordered 14,000 teu vessels for this trade and the existing “cascade” of similar ships from Asia-Europe will also increase the average.
In its latest weekly market analysis, Drewry said: “In truth, the arrival of one 18,000 teu ship, which may not even be full, won’t meaningfully test the West Coast terminals’ ability to deal with such ships, but at the very least it raises the question of what the USWC ports need to do to get there.”
“Bigger ships demand faster container handling speed and operational productivity. However, while overall berth productivity does increase with ship size, it does not increase directly in line,” the analyst added, “this is because the length of ULCVs has not increased in proportion with their teu intake (they have got wider, deeper and stacked higher instead) meaning the number of gantry cranes deployed per vessel cannot be increased in direct proportion to ship sizes.”
According to Drewry, USWC ports would have to get ready in terms of water depth, quay length and cranes, as well as enhance the efficiency of the process of bringing cargo to and from the ports through truckers, which are in short supply, and intermodal railroad.
The analyst said that despite solutions such as terminal automation and turning ports into 24/7 operations would certainly help to improve productivity, their implementation would demand more flexibility from the unionised Dockers, something that it claimed “seems a long way off”.
According to Drewry, letting too many mega-ships call at the USWC ports before they are fully ready would be likely to worsen productivity and could add days to the load and discharge time at terminals.
As the analyst added, this would undermine the USWC ports’ competitiveness compared to the United States East Coast (USEC) ports, which are soon likely to enjoy the benefits of the Panama Canal’s expansion that is expected to almost triple the maximum size of vessels being able to call there.