United States West Coast 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, UK-based shipping consultancy Drewry believes.
The opinion emerges as the French liner CMA CGM readies to send the 18,000-teu CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin to the US, making the ship the largest containership to call at any US port when it arrives at the port of Los Angeles on 26 December.
It is not yet known whether this is just a trial-run although CMA CGM’s forward schedules do show that the same ship will return to the USWC in mid-February to make a visit to Long Beach.
According to Drewry, the story is largely a public relations exercise as CMA CGM will soon become the largest player in the Transpacific market after the takeover of APL and for the port of Los Angeles it provides more welcome headlines than those generated earlier in the year when labour dispute and port congestion dominated.
“In truth, 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,” Drewry adds.
As bigger ships are being introduced across the board, 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 believes that the vessel upsizing trend in the Asia-USWC will certainly 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,” Drewry notes.
West Coast ports have shown they can accommodate a growing number of ships in the 8,000-14,000 teu range, but there remain a lot of unanswered questions as to when the USWC ports will be in a position to step up to the next level and handle mega-ships such as CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin.
Among the things to be done on the quayside, USWC ports will have to gear up in terms of water depth, quay length, and cranes, but there is also a need to improve the efficiency of how cargo is brought to and from the port complex via truckers (who are in short supply) and intermodal railroad.
Terminal automation would certainly 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, es explained by Drewry.
“Introducing too many ULCVs to the West Coast ports before they are fully ready would most likely worsen productivity, rather than improve matters, and could add days to the load and discharge time for boxes at terminals, thus undermining the USWC’s competitiveness versus the USEC,” the consultancy stressed.