Box volume at the country's terminals rose by just 0.2 per cent to 7.88 million TEU - the second lowest rate in a decade. Full container lifts decreased by 4.9 per cent, compared with a 14.6 per cent increase in empty container lifts, according to the container stevedoring monitoring report 2018-19, published by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
'The slowdown in container volume growth reflects weakening economic activity in goods distribution industries such as retail and manufacturing, a report by London's Loadstar cited the ACCC as saying.
'In addition, the drought in eastern Australia and floods in Queensland negatively impacted volumes of various export commodities such as grain, hay and cotton.'
The report noted that stiffer competition between stevedores with the arrival of relative newcomers Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) and Hutchison Ports, has seen the share of incumbents Patrick and DP World Australia (DPWA) fall to an historical low of 82 per cent.
Quayside revenue per lift continued on its downwards trajectory, declining 8.1 per cent year on year to AUD190.40 (US$131.35), reflecting the ongoing growth in shipping lines' bargaining power and the relatively high proportion of empty containers, ACCC said.
However, higher infrastructure charges, levied on truckers and passed on to cargo owners, helped drive the stevedores' overall growth in unit revenues for the first time since 2011-12, increasing 1.8 per cent to AUD268.50.
'Revenue from landside and other sources increased by 12.9 per cent to AUD78.10 per container, due mainly to increases in infrastructure charges. These revenues now make up 29 per cent of the total.'
The industry's total revenue generated from infrastructure charges skyrocketed by 63 per cent to AUD167 million, while operating profit decreased by 4.7 per cent to AUD81.3 million.
ACCC said it was understandable for stevedores to seek to recover some costs from landside transport operators, but cautioned that they were earning a growing portion of their revenues from customers that have limited alternatives.
Earlier this year, the row over infrastructure charges spread to the west coast port of Fremantle, where DPWA announced it would raise the fee on laden containers from A$8.22 to A$45 from January 1.
In a letter to customers, DPWA's general manager commercial Sean Barrett said: 'Operating costs at Fremantle Terminal have risen considerably in the last five years. DPWA has continued to absorb the majority of these costs whilst focusing on productivity initiatives to offset the cost increases.
'These initiatives have delivered a 20 per cent improvement in road efficiency for carriers and contributed to an increase in rail utilisation, however the material rise in costs can no longer be offset by productivity improvements.
'DPWA has also continued to invest at our Fremantle Terminal with more than AUD16 million in critical infrastructure to keep pace with industry expectations, and handle greater peaks and troughs in cargo arrival patterns.'
However, Fremantle ports chief executive Chris Leatt-Hayter responded: 'DP World's action is disappointing, given the substantial effort both parties have made to reach agreement on the new lease arrangements over the past months.'