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Northport looks to expansion in embrace of growing container output

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Northport New Zealand’s swathe of investments could lead to the port handling some 750,000 TEU in its long-term vision, the port’s CEO told PTI.

Northport, based at Marsden Point at the mouth of Whangarei Harbour, announced in June 2021 it would invest NZ$8 million ($5.72 million) on infrastructure to handle increased volumes.

Spurred largely by 2,000 TEU of unexpected calls by international vessels, Jon Moore, CEO at Northport, told PTI the port saw a 9% year-on-year (YoY) increase in the volume of container traffic during the 2020/21 financial year to the end of June.

Moore, reflecting on the drivers behind increased throughput at the port, said Northport was prepared to handle at short notice vessels that had been scheduled to call Auckland and were being held up due to port congestion.

“The outcome of this has been interest and dialogue with shipping lines looking at Northport as longer-term solution to port congestion around the Upper North Island,” he said.

“Containerisation represents the next freight growth opportunity for Northport, with projected population growth in North and West Auckland set to generate significant additional freight demand.”

In the short-term, the new equipment – including reach-stackers, a dock-truck and a MAFI trailer – will give the port “far greater flexibility and efficiency” in accommodating the surge in volumes.

“We needed to increase our shoreside capability to handle this volume growth,” he explained.

“Northport is New Zealand’s newest port facility. It has operated by investing in plant and equipment as and when it is required to meet the freight demand. Our previous fleet was more than capable of handling the ‘business as usual’ demand but the surge volume experienced in 20/21 meant we had to react sooner than our budgeted plant replacement/reinvestment plans.”

Northport has also invested in Navis’ Octopi TOS, which is currently being installed and will be ready for large-scale operation by calendar-year end.

Expansion

The forecasted increase in the volume of TUE through the port has given Northport impetus to announce a major infrastructural overhaul to plant its flag as a container hub.

The Northport ‘Vision for Growth’, including the creation of a new purpose-built container terminal, will seek to alleviate container pressures on other North Island ports.

The port expects that the increased container demand will require a terminal capable of around 450,000 TEU.

© Northport Vision for Growth

With the additional container handling equipment the port could add – including  ship-to-shore cranes – the terminal has the potential to handle some 750,000 TEU on a 30-50 year growth trajectory.

“We have engaged TBA (International Terminal Designers) to review the proposed terminal footprint, pilotage restrictions and berth capacity to understand the initial capability and potential growth capacity,” Moore said.

A consultation period on the proposals is still underway. “The current proposal is to lodge the applications with council [around] 1 December 2021,” Moore explained.

“However, we will only lodge if the company and its consenting team are comfortable that all of the Resource Management Act (RMA) consenting requirements have been met.”

National outlook

All capacity investments aside, regional container traffic is expected to grow from 14,000 TEU to 52,00 TEU by 2026.

At a macro level, New Zealand’s freight demand is “increasing not decreasing,” Moore argued.

“Increased congestion at Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga (and potentially other NZ ports) will drive shipping lines to look at alternative port call options,” he said.

“New Zealand’s geography and small population means that there will always be a need for regional ports to handle low value commodities as well as the regional container demand.”

Coastal shipping as a form of freight transport has also received a “significant amount” of money for investigation into the future of coastal shipping in New Zealand – an option championed by Brazilian ports in its cabotage drive.

“Coastal shipping will have a role to play providing its rates are commercially acceptable to the shipping lines,” Moore continued.

To accommodate increased container flows inland, the North Auckland has been upgraded to handle High Cube containers, and a rail line connection to Northport is now under design, with construction planned to start in 2024.

New Zealand ports are not state-owned and thus the future direction of container growth will sit within the individual ports themselves, Moore noted.

The current national government is mulling options to better manage freight distribution across the country – driven mostly by road and rail.

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