by Olaf Merk
Ever bigger container ships inspire awe and fascination, and are one of the hottest topics in maritime transport. They are also a headache for ports and terminals – mainly because of their vast size.
A new publication by the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD assesses the impacts of these giant container ships. First of all, let’s get a hook on how big these ships really are. They are big! Mega-big! These are true giants, bigger than houses, bigger than apartment buildings and bigger than skyscrapers. They are bigger indeed than whole urban neighbourhoods. Now at up to 400 metres long, these ships are longer than Eiffel Tower (301 metres).
This size increase has been exponential; ships doubled in volume in 20 years between 1975 and 1995, and then almost doubled again in the following decade, doubling yet again between 2005 and 2015. And it ain’t over yet! Plans are afoot to continue increase size to 21 100 TEU* by 2017. (TEU: twenty foot equivalent unit – a small transport container – is a standard volumetric transport measurement)
When is big too big?
Although economies of scale allow vessel costs per volume transported to decrease with bigger ships, the on-land costs of handling those volumes increase. Together, these two costs determine the total costs for the transport chain. At a certain point increasing ship size becomes sub-optimal as cost savings become marginal. While a doubling of container ship size reduces costs by a third (vessel costs per TEU), making sea transport cheaper, the savings decrease with increased size.
To find out where we are on the cost curve, we tried a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of ordering 19 000 TEU ships, shipping companies had ordered 14 000 TEU ships giving the same total fleet capacity. In that scenario, land-side costs would have been approximately $50 lower per transported container. This might seem little, but it is actually substantial when compared to freight rates for transporting a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam – now at less than $400 and the thousands of containers ships can carry. Hence, as ship sizes continue to increase we find ourselves heading towards overall increasing costs.
Do we really need this capacity?
Our research casts serious doubts over whether this capacity can in fact be filled. We found a disconnect between what is going on in the boardrooms of shipping lines and the real world. The growth of containerised seaborne trade is no longer in line with the growth of the world container fleet. And shipping companies have created alliances (only four in total worldwide) which dominate container shipping. So the little guys can get to the big toys, but this has also leads to overcapacity.
There are also several supply chain costs and risks related to mega-ships. There are adaptations needed to infrastructure and equipment: the ships are longer, wider and deeper which has consequences for cranes, quays, access channels and all that. Mega-ships stay on average 20% longer in ports – quite an achievement for most ports as this requires massive efforts to accommodate these longer-stay guests. The higher risks associated with mega-ships are linked to difficulties in insuring and salvaging in case of accidents. Furthermore, mega-ships mean that more cargo is concentrated on a single ship, leading to lower service frequencies and lower supply chain resilience – all your eggs in one basket.
Mega-ships have redefined the meaning of the word “peak”. Massive truck movements, train movements and yard occupancy are all related to the arrival of a mega-ship. There is a requirement to manage this huge capacity on arrival which may lead to more port congestion.
Where are we heading?
We looked at three scenarios: one in line with market demand growth projections, two others above these growth projections, one with 50, another with 100 ships with a 24 000 TEU capacity (and a length of 430 metres), which currently do not exist or have not been ordered – but that could be operational by 2020. The results are pretty scary. We could see 24 000 TEU ships in Europe – both in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. All other regions would be impacted as ships what used to be the biggest ships serving Europe are reassigned to other routes. So we might see 19,000 ships in North America, 14,000 ships in South America and Africa in a few years. Whatever the scenario, mega-ships will be the new normal in Northern Europe very soon. In just a few years 19 000 TEU ships will be seen every day in major ports. One thing is sure – this will lead us to a decade of port gridlock if nothing is done.
What needs to be done?
Mega-ships are a fact of life, so there should be policy support to use them effectively: for innovation, for more labour flexibility, optimisation of existing infrastructure (spreading use over day and night), releasing peaks (e.g. by “dry ports” – inland transshipment centres), and upsizing of hinterland transport units (larger trains, trucks and barges).
On a more fundamental level, decision-making by ports and countries should be more balanced. Many public policies stimulate mega-ship use, but public benefits are limited whereas public costs can be high. This should change, first by aligning incentives to public interests. For example, not to have port tariffs that cross-subsidise mega-ships, to clarify state aid rules for ports, increase their financial transparency and possibly link state aid for shipping companies to commitments to share in certain costs (e.g. dredging).
Another way would be to increase collaboration at regional level, between countries, ports and regulators. This might include coordination of port development and investment, possibly port mergers and more national or supra-national planning and focus. For example, the number of core ports in EU trans-Europe transport network (TEN-T) corridor networks could be reduced.
Finally, there should be a clear discussion on what the future direction should be. A forum for liners, terminals, ports and other transport actors should be facilitated to discuss about the desirable container ship size in the future. The International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD is there and willing to facilitate such a discussion.
About the author
Olaf Merk is the ports and shipping expert of the International Transport Forum (ITF). The International Transport Forum at the OECD is an intergovernmental organisation with 57 member countries. It acts as a policy think tank and organises an Annual Summit of transport ministers. The ITF is the only global body with a mandate for all transport modes.