Following news that the 18,000 TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin will become the largest containership to call at any US port when it arrives at the port of Los Angeles on December 26, 2015 Drewry Maritime Advisors pose a pertinent question: are US West Coast (USWC) ports ready to handle the largest containerships?
CMA CGM will soon become the largest player in the Transpacific market after the takeover of APL, which Drewry believe is significant because these ultra large container vessels (ULCVs) have until now only been viable in the Asia-Europe route.
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.
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), which means the number of gantry cranes deployed per vessel cannot be increased in direct proportion to ship sizes.
Also, as the average size of ships grows and more cargo is squeezed onto fewer weekly services terminals have to prepare for much greater peaks in container activity.
This problem is exacerbated on the USWC as ships often only call at a couple of ports, unlike in Europe, meaning those US ports have to handle a higher ratio of boxes per ship call.
The size of containerships deployed on the Asia-USWC route has been steadily increasing with the average size rising by around 14% in just two years to reach 7,600 TEU.
There are now over 50 ships of 10,000 TEU or above deployed on the route whereas at the start of 2014 there were only 14.
Drewry said that the vessel upsizing trend in the Asia-USWC will continue as carriers such as Maersk Line and CSCL have ordered 14,000 TEU units specifically for that trade, while the ongoing cascade of similar sized vessels from Asia-Europe will also boost the average.
It’s important for the US West Coast ports to step up as they are losing some of their dominant market share to their rivals on the East Coast, which will soon get a boost from the expanded Panama Canal that will triple the maximum size of containership that can call there.
Despite the labour-related setbacks earlier this year the combined container throughput at Los Angeles and Long Beach is on course to be the highest since 2007 with combined handling after 11 months up by 1.4% on last year at 14.1 million TEU.
Terminal automation would help to improve productivity, as would longer working hours to turn ports into 24/7 operations, but this would require more flexibility from the unionised Dockers, something that seems a long way off.
Drewry View: USWC ports are not yet in a position to handle 18,000 TEU containerships regularly and have much work to do in terms of improving productivity if they are to see them call on anything other than an ad-hoc basis.