Container shipping is, some half century after inception, remarkably resilient and successful in operational terms. Mankind, particularly in the developed world, takes it for granted that it is possible to buy exotic fresh produce that has travelled weeks from another continent, or pick up a bargain in latest electronic gadgetry that is most likely to have been manufactured thousands of miles from the consumer.
In order to achieve such freedom of freight movement, shipping companies have had to lower their costs continually, a major consequence of which is a massive growth in containership size. By 2017 the standard size of ships on the Asia-Europe trade is likely to be nearing 20,000TEU, the so-called ‘ULCCs’.
The success of the container as a means of freight transport and the increasing size of ships means port terminals are handling ‘lumpier’ volumes and coping with larger dimensions of ships at their berths. Of course not all trades will see the largest ships and the majority of the world’s ports can’t accommodate them. These leviathans will only be employed on the main east-west Asia-Europe trade. However, as shipping lines seek to gain the effects of economies of scale across all the trades in which they operate, and employ ships displaced by the ULCCs effectively, they will ‘cascade’ their assets on to trades with smaller volumes of cargo. Therefore all ports and terminals are likely to experience an increase in ship size (if not necessarily the largest) and the consequent increase in volume throughput per ship call.