The container terminals of the last decades were built for a familiar world, designed to serve a rapidly growing industry with many shipping line customers, established shipping patterns and well-understood dynamics. Terminal operators were in a controlling position, as they owned the all-important capacity and location that were essential for the shipping lines. Demands from customers were not that high, and were more focused on available handling capacity than on performance and service.
Over the last five years or so, the container shipping business has experienced a fundamental change. Newly-built container ships have grown far beyond what would have been reasonable only a decade ago. At the same time, alliances and mergers are consolidating shipping lines into fewer major players operating these giant ships. This has radical implications for container terminals, which are left struggling to meet the huge engineering and operational challenges imposed upon them, from berth length to ship-to-shore crane reach and container stack capacity.
The supersizing of container ships also affects smaller terminals at the peripheries of the networks, as shipping lines wrestle with the sub-optimal but seemingly inescapable logic of building ever larger vessels in an attempt to maintain their competitiveness. The influx of bigger vessels pushes the next-smaller size ships into smaller terminals, also replacing the familiar vessels they have served with bigger ones. The result of this cascading effect is that terminals everywhere face a smaller customer base that is bringing in larger average numbers of containers per vessel.
In the old days, your terminal might have handled 200,000 TEU per year for a single shipping line. If this demand suddenly mushrooms to 1,000,000 TEU thanks to alliances and a new fleet of mega-capacity ships, this is great news – but only if your terminal can handle it. The odds are high that it can’t.
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