When ultra large container vessels (ULCVs) were first considered, questions were raised as to which European port shipping lines would select as their hub.
At present, according to Drewy Maritime Research and contrary to the views of some in the industry, the average number of North European port calls per loop has remained broadly unchanged despite containerships doubling in size in the past 10 years on the Far East-North Europe route,
Container services are following traditional itineraries, calling at ports as close as possible to the final destination or origin of the cargo, with mega vessels calling at four North European ports rather than concentrating on a single mega-hub. Such ports are typically in Benelux, usually Rotterdam or Antwerp, Germany, the UK and either the French Port of Le Havre, or one of the second-tier European ports.
‘None of the major North European ports has become dominant or displaced competing ports,’ states the report. However, some second-tier ports (such as Amsterdam and Thamesport) have been forced out as ports of call on the Far East-North Europe route.’
In fact, since 2009, additional North European ports have been added, including Gdansk in Poland, initially partly driven to use up excess ship capacity by extending voyage times in conjunction with slow steaming. Rather than being short-lived move, such calls now appear to be well established.
The arrival of mega-vessels is forcing change at ports, with the total number of North Europe port calls on the Far East-North Europe route falling from 159 to 101 in the past five years, as a result of less frequent calls but with much larger container exchanges per call. An example is that of the Port of Hamburg which, in the first half of 2014, received 244 ULCVs of more than 10,000 teu capacity, 27% more than a year earlier.
Drewry suggests that scale economies on mothership costs (running fewer weekly services with bigger ships), the advent of larger alliances (less duplication of port calls) and the reduction in the number of carriers, have all played a part in the changes taking place.
As these factors that will not go away, the consultancy concludes that multi-port rotations will continue in North Europe, but there will be fewer, less frequent calls by increasingly large containerships. As a result, the recent peaking and subsequent congestion is likely to continue to challenge many ports and terminals.