Interview: Antwerp Sets the Course for Future Growth

Belgium’s Port of Antwerp is the biggest port area in the world, covering 13,057 hectares, the equivalent of 20,000 football fields. The Port of Antwerp is situated some 80 kilometers inland at the upper end of the tidal estuary of the Scheldt river, which thanks to the latest deepening in 2010 is navigable by the biggest container vessels.

This inland location, bringing the port closer to Central Europe’s manufacturers and consumers, is one of the main reasons why the Port of Antwerp is among Europe’s busiest ports.

The port of Antwerp handled a freight volume of around 148.34 million tonnes during the first nine months of this year, a 3.7% more than the same period last year, putting it on track to surpass the last year’s record volumes of 190.8 million tonnes.

Given the sheer size of the port area, as well as the volumes handled, the port’s logistics network has to be constantly adapted and upgraded to keep up with the growing demands.

World Maritime News staff visited the Port of Antwerp and met with Luc Arnouts, the port’s Chief Commercial Officer, to find out what challenges lie in running the shipping and logistics operation of this magnitude.

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WMN: The North West European Ports, including Antwerp, voiced their dissatisfaction with the allocation of EU funds that were intended for the Mediterranean ports, and announced talks with the EU Commission. Have there been any developments on this matter? What should, in your opinion, be a more fair distribution?

Arnouts:If you look at the performance of the North West European Ports, and compare it with the performance of the Mediterranean ports, then with all due respect, we have to acknowledge that the largest percentage of goods destined for the central part of Europe has been, and still is passing through the North West European Ports.

We believe that one of the contributing factors to the performance of our ports is the way we are organized. The supply chain solutions the North West European Ports offer seem to be very well adapted to servicing a large part of Europe. Even in terms of geography, we are closer to certain ports. So, what we want to say is, if you are looking at allocating funds according to the needs of the European ports, the previous efforts done by the ports in the North West Europe should be taken into account, in order for us to continue working efficiently. We feel that all the European ports should have a level playing field.

We have to plead for a correct distribution of the funds. We have demands and wishes for further developing intermodal links, and we would love to see some support from the EU. We want to make sure that the allocation of the funds is done not only based on a fact that there is progress in the North West European Ports compared to other ports, and that this should give us a disadvantage. We feel it should be to the contrary, our quality and performance should serve as an advantage in the process of allocating the funds.

If you look at the waterway systems in this part of Europe, especially Belgium, North of France, Western Germany, etc., it is such an efficient system offering interesting modes of transport, such as transport by barge, which is, from an environmental and reduced congestion point of view, an excellent option. Let us not start creating systems to compensate others who do not have this advantageous system we have. “

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WMN: The 2M Alliance has selected Antwerp as the import and export port of call. Could you comment on your expectations? How will this affect Antwerp’s business figures?

Arnouts:The shipping industry is going through a very interesting period. The shipping alliances are becoming a common occurrence, becoming better organized and better structured. We were happy that the two biggest carriers, Maersk and MSC, decided to assign a prominent role to the Port of Antwerp.

We think that the experiences that both of the carriers have had at our port over the years have convinced them to further solidify our business relationships. MSC has been our number one container customer, and Maersk has been increasing its operations within the port at a rate of 20% per year over the last four years.

We believe that our port was chosen because of our position, our cargo generating power, which is due to the fact that we have a big industrial cluster within the port, and our huge logistics complex, the biggest one in Europe. It is also beneficial that we have the nautical accessibility of a deepsea port combined with our inland location. The 18,000 TEU vessels are calling at Antwerp which is located 100 kilometers inland, close to consumption and production areas.”

WMN: Rotterdam has been facing numerous congestion issues since July and as a result shipping companies switched their calls to Antwerp. Could you explain to our readers how has this switch affected your business operations? Has Antwerp been experiencing bottleneck problems? What is the situation now?

Arnouts: “One thing that we feel we have been developing in a positive way is the transport within the port. The port covers a huge area, and in the last few years we have set up solid intra-port shunting systems.

This horizontal transport, as we refer to it, is something that might have played a role in the congestion taking place in Rotterdam. For the past year we have worked on this system, seeing that we have many terminals on different locations, quite a distance away from one another, so we had the need to create this connectivity between our terminals to make sure that congestion occurring at one part of the port can be alleviated by directing and transporting containers throughout the port.

I think we have an effective system of intra-port transport put in place, whereas our northern neighbours still have some work to do in that area. On the other hand, we do not have congestion issues today, but that does not mean that we will not suffer from it tomorrow. We battle congestion with prioritizing our terminals, with our good transport system, and with our high-performing terminal operators. The ingredients are there to maintain the port congestion-free, but I am not saying that a sudden increase in volumes would not lead to congestion. “

WMN: Port of Antwerp has introduced paperless export for Ro/Ro transport recently? Do you see this trend spreading to other types of cargo transportation?

Arnouts: “In today’s business, the transfer of data is as important as the transfer of goods. People want to know where their goods are, and to make sure that the flow of goods runs smoothly. The administrative flow needs to be organized in the best way.

Here in Antwerp we created the Antwerp Port Community System (APCS), which is the collaboration between the public sector, that is ourselves, and the private sector. It is a 50:50 venture which focuses on facilitating and providing solutions to all the players in the port community, both shippers and receivers, in order to enable a better flow of cargo and better communication. One of the tools that we have developed with that in mind is E Desk. You need the proof that goods have left the port, and this has always been a burdensome procedure with a lot of paperwork.

Now, once the shippers bring the goods to the terminal, a message is sent via E Desk from the terminal to the Customs that the goods are loaded, and this message is regarded as a final proof of export. We first introduced this tool with containerized cargo, and now we have incorporated the system into our Ro/Ro business.”

WMN: Are there any hidden dangers behind switching to the electronic way of doing business, as there is a growing threat of cyber-attacks? What is the port doing to prevent these?

Arnouts: “As you know, many ports, including our own, have suffered cyber-attacks on our IT systems. I am referring to our containerized cargo IT system which was attacked. We take this threat very seriously, and that is why we created a working group to focus on how to tackle this problem. Evidently, the information on the goods that are moving through our port can be misused by criminals. That is why we created this working group which is a part of APCS.”

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WMN: Port of Antwerp started construction of what will be the biggest sea lock in the world in 2011. What is the current stage of construction, when is it going to be completed?

Arnouts: “We are fully on schedule. The new lock will be operational in the first half of 2016. This lock will give us an additional boost the development of the left bank of the port, which is developing pretty well, but with only one lock the situation is not optimal. “

WMN: Is Antwerp ready for the bigger ships of the future reaching up to 24,000 TEU? What are the future steps in terms of infrastructural investments?

Arnouts:” Fifteen to twenty years ago nobody had dreamed of 10,000 TEU vessels, they were thought of as impossible. Therefore, I am not saying 24,000 TEU vessels are impossible, but what I clearly feel is that the impact of these huge vessels on port operations is now getting to a critical point where we might need additional investments in port infrastructure.

The 24,000 TEU vessels sound great in cost-per-unit terms, but we also need to start looking at a total impact of such huge ships on the whole logistics chain, and tally up a total cost of introducing these vessels into the supply chains. If the idea of 24,000 TEU vessels were to be abandoned, it would have to do with the overall costs of the required investments in port infrastructure. I do not know if 24,000 TEU is the limit, but what I do know is that any further increase in size of the ships will have a larger impact than the increases up to now.

Most of the modern terminals have, with rather modest adaptations, been able to receive these huge vessels. But when you consider what might be required to receive a 24,000 TEU vessel, the adaptations would have an investment impact which could prove to be a deal breaker.

Looking at the insurance aspect, if you build 24,000 or 30, 000 TEU vessels, they would carry an incredible value across the seas, so trying to insure those ships and the cargo they are carrying might also create a problem. “

World Maritime News Staff

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