Recent traffic dynamics in the European container port system



Professor Theo Notteboom, ITMMA, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium


European container ports find themselves embedded in everchanging economic and logistics systems. The European container port system cannot be considered as a homogenous set of ports. It features established large ports as well as a whole series of medium-sized to smaller ports each with specific characteristics in terms of transhipment incidence, the hinterland markets served and the location qualities. This unique blend of different container port types and sizes combined with a vast economic hinterland shapes port competition in the region. This contribution discusses recent developments in the European container port system. We are particularly interested in the impact of the crisis on the port hierarchy in Europe. Are new container ports and port regions emerging as challengers of established ports and regions? Are some port regions in Europe gradually losing their significance? How is the balance between north and south evolving? How are new large-scale terminal capacity expansions affecting the competitive balance in the European container port system?

Recovering from 2009 drop but with regional differences

With a total maritime container throughput of an estimated 95.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) in 2012, the European container port system ranks among the busiest container port systems in the world. Growth has been particularly strong in the period from 2005 to 2007 with an average annual growth rate of 10.5 percent, compared to 6.8 percent in the period from 1985 to 1995, 8.9 percent in 1995 to 2000 and 7.7 percent in 2000 to 2005. The economic crisis which started to have its full effect in late 2008 brought an end to the steep growth curve. Total container throughput increased from 90.7 million TEU in 2008 to 95.2 million TEU in 2012 or an average annual growth of only 1.26 percent. The year 2009 is at the root of this slow pace given a year on year drop in container volumes of about 14 percent in 2009. Between 2009 and 2012 traffic volumes have recovered at a rate of 6.87 percent each year. The container ports in the Hamburg-Le Havre range (which includes all ports along the coastline between Le Havre in France and Hamburg in Germany) handle about half of the total European container throughput (see figure 1). The share of the Mediterranean ports grew significantly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s at the expense of the ports in the Hamburg-Le Havre range. The significant improvement of the share of the Mediterranean was mainly the result of the insertion of transhipment hubs in the region since the mid-1990s (Gioia Tauro, Marsaxlokk, Cagliari, Taranto to new but a few). At the start of the new millennium, the position of the northern range gradually improved while the Mediterranean ports and the UK port system lost ground. The crisis seems to have stopped this trend as from 2009 the traffic balance between the Mediterranean and the Hamburg-Le Havre range remained quite stable. However, the position of the UK ports (southeast and south coast only) continued to weaken. The Baltic port region has clearly strengthened its traffic position in the past few years. The strong growth path of European ports in the Black Sea area (Romania and Bulgaria) suddenly stopped in crisis year 2009.

Individual port rankings: few changes at the top

Table 1 provides an overview of the 15 largest container ports in the European Union. Saint-Petersburg, which handled 2.52 million TEU in 2012 and has witnessed strong growth in the past few years is not included in the ranking. A number of the listed ports act as almost pure transhipment hubs with a transhipment incidence of 75 percent or more (ie. Gioia Tauro, Marsaxlokk, Algeciras) while other load centres can be considered as almost pure gateways (e.g. Genoa and Barcelona to name a couple) or a combination of a dominant gateway function with sea to sea transhipment activities (eg. Hamburg, Rotterdam, Le Havre, Antwerp). About 68 percent of the total container throughput in the European port system passes through the top 15 ports, compared to 61 percent in 1985. Since 2008 no major shifts have taken place in the traffic shares of the top three, top 10 and top 15 ports, although the top three ports have lost some ground. Nearly one third of all containers are handled by the top three ports. Worth mentioning is that the dominance of market leader Rotterdam weakened in the late 1990s, but in the past decade the port’s position has remained quite stable. Overall, the figures suggest a continued high concentration of cargo in only a dozen large container ports. While the crisis has not significantly altered the rankings, a number of ports lost some position while others gained. For example, the Belgian port of Zeebrugge initially overcame the crisis very well by climbing to the ninth position in 2010 but afterwards booked traffic losses pushing the seaport back to position 13. The Greek port of Piraeus showed the most volatile traffic evolution. Piraeus’ volume peaked at 1.6 million TEU in 2003, but strikes and unrest led to a throughput of only 433,000 TEU in 2008. In 2010, the container port started a remarkable recovery path partly pushed by the arrival of Cosco Pacific as operator of the ‘Pier 2’ facility. Piraeus reappeared in the top 15 ranking in 2011 and last year held position eight with a total volume of 2.7 million TEU.


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