How Rotterdam stays on top of the highly competitive Northern Range

Changes that transformed shipping in the last 10 years have done well by the Dutch Port of Rotterdam as prospects grow brighter by the day

08 November 2019 - 19:00

Changes that transformed shipping in the last 10 years have done well by the Dutch Port of Rotterdam as prospects grow brighter by the day.

Gone are the glory days between 1962 and 2004 when Rotterdam was the world's busiest port. That honour has sinice gone to Hong Kong, then Singapore and now Shanghai.

But because the biggest ships, now coming in at 23,000 TEU, can an access Rotterdam with its 16.5 metres alongside, the Dutch port is now Europe's busiest.

With no tidal restrictions unlike its main rival Antwerp with only 15 metres at high tide on River Scheldt 80 kilometres inland, Rotterdam also outclasses Germany's main Port of Hamburg 110 kilometres inland on the River Elbe with its 14 metres at high tide.

Beyond that there is the French seaport of Le Havre that monopolises the considerable import and export cargo of France, but little else. It has the advantage of being the first to greet ships from Asia and the last to load them when they head home.

There are secondary, if not tertiary ports, such as Belgium's Zeebrugge, and Germany's Duisburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven, and curiously, it is this quarter that Rotterdam fears the most.

A more immediate and pressing problem is Brexit, the expected withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. But Rotterdam looks on the bright side, seeing companies fleeing to Europe at the prospect of local control and feeling confident that getting goods in and out of an independent UK will be no more difficult than dealing with Canada, which has never been much of a problem.

In fact, Rotterdam port logistics and container director Hans Nagtegaal fears Rotterdam's success because the greater its throughput, the greater the risk of congestion.

'It is a good thing we have space for growth in Rotterdam. There's enough space for further construction. The biggest danger is that, if we don't have space availability or terminal availability, and we continue to grow as we have done - 25 per cent over the last four years - then congestion comes in to play,' said Mr Nagtegaal.

'And then you might lose, and become less popular and then you have transshipments. It makes sense to go to Rotterdam now, but if we can't get the cargo there, then they better to do it somewhere else. That's something we have to fear,' he said.

And that's when he turns a wary eye on deep-water German Port of Wilhelmhaven, with its uncongested mega ship berths.

Said Mr Nagtegaal: 'They do some transshipments as well, mainly to the UK and Iberia, Hamburg and Bremerhaven. Wilhelmshaven is the interesting one. It's basically deep-sea port without the restrictions of the Elbe, so from a German point of view, it holds promise.

'Nothing is really shifting yet, and I think Hamburg is doing fine. Hamburg has a very good rail connections into Germany. Wilhelmshaven not yet. Bremerhaven is also good. So they work together. There is no river going from the south, so where we have a lot of barges they do not. Almost 50 per cent of our hinterland cargo goes via barge,' said Mr Nagtegaal.

As he sees it Rotterdam has all the cards. If cargo is bound for 50 kilometres inland, it goes by truck. Much beyond that, it goes my rail, or barge. Forty-five per cent of the port's hinterland cargo goes by barge, 40 per cent by truck and 15 per cent by rail.

The River Maas turns into the Rhine at the German border and becomes a defacto extensive canal system. Hamburg has good road and rail, but little to match Rotterdam's barge system. Antwerp comes close, but the shipside is limited by tidal conditions, which means less draught. And Le Havre is limited to France.

Like other ports in the age of mega ships, there are landside and a seaside problems. One is co-ordinating docking time so one ship follows another seamlessly and is not languishing long at anchor. The other problem is the massive dumping of containers on the dock and clearing them before the next ship unloads.

'Obviously if you have 10,000 or 12,000 containers being discharged, and everybody wants to pick them up the next day, then that is creating challenges. I think you have smarten up the process. We call it optimisation. And what we do is try to give as much insight as possible. We just launched a programme called 'Box Insider', which is tracking and giving the status of each container,' Mr Nagtegaal said.

'It's not that complicated. Basically, it's gathering the information from various sources. The terminal can tell you that a box has entered the terminal. It has a number, so they can tell you it has left. And a barge operator will be able to tell you that he has loaded the container. And an inland terminal will also be told, will can tell you that it has arrived. This is the information we are gathering and it is put into one system,' he said, adding that this applies to trucks and trains.

In the same way, Rotterdam applies the optimisation to its vessel arrivals and departures 'Which means that we do everything around a vessel, from the entrance into the port, from the mooring, the pilots, the bunker vessels, the terminal, to make sure we, we have optimal planning,' said Mr Nagtegaal.

Rotterdam prefers if vessels can be just on time because being early is about as bad as being late. 'You know, the terminal's not ready, and you have to wait for a day at anchor,' he said.

But all is not lost. 'If you know that in advance, we can combine terminal planning. We can tell the vessel to slow down 12 or 13 knots. We can tell them that slowing down will reduce their port stay, also their fuel burn and that's an advantage.'

One of the challenges facing Rotterdam's growth potential is psychological. The big part of the port's hinterland is Germany, but the Netherlands is not Germany. That makes it hard to sell the idea that it is often better to reach the consumer-rich German interior through a Dutch port like Rotterdam than through a German port like Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven or Bremerhaven. That's because while the road and rail links from German ports can match what Rotterdam has to offer, nothing can beat its inland barges that can access the Rhine and Germany's industrial heartland, the Rhineland.

But however illusory, the idea of getting to Germany through Germany is powerful, and Rotterdam has a hard time making the point that it is often better to go through Holland. 'They have a friend, a business associate, they are prisoner of their customer, and we have an issue because we can't look at the optimalisation of your network per se,' Mr Nagtegaal said.

'Well, he still go to Stuttgart, but it doesn't necessarily mean that there, because they have shipped it via port A for the last 30 years that they have to continue to ship via port A because there could be many alternatives,' he said.

With Brexit, the biggest change would be exports as they would require a pre-declaration. If someone was exporting from a vegetable or flower auction, he would buy his flowers at 8 o'clock. At 10 o'clock he gets them delivered, puts them in a truck, at eleven o'clock and at 12 o'clock he's on the boat. 'That's how it works now,' he said.

'After Brexit, he has to make a declaration, tell customs he is coming. And this is the number of flowers. He also has to declare what is and what he has, that he has one truck of flowers, but he has to specify how many roses, how many tulips and so on. But it?s nothing more than what you have with any hard border.

'You have to declare what you are exporting and, and then customs will say 'okay, let me inspect it'. Obviously, most of this inspection is not done physically It's digitised. So what, what we have tried to ensure is that most of the exporters have arranged this.

'So they have an account at customs. They have to use our system. It will take 15 minutes to a half hour,?he said.

But after users become accustomed to the system, Mr Nagtegaal suspected that the time it took to do the extra work would be minimised by digitisation.

Well ahead of the pack of Northern Range ports, Rotterdam is in the enviable position of being fearful of its own successful growth rate - 25 per cent over four years - causing congestion that my induce carriers to switch to rival ports.


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