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Container port boom in Belgium

Things are looking up in Antwerp and Zeebrugge, with cargo volumes growing. But both ports face their own challenges

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These are exciting times for ports in Belgium, with cargo volumes rising and, in the case of Antwerp, tonnage records being broken year-on-year. In 2018, the port handled 235.2 Mt of cargo, including 130.9 Mt of containerised goods (11.1M TEU). This consolidated the port’s position as the second largest box port in Europe. Meanwhile, in March 2109, Antwerp reported its busiest month ever for containers. This clearly suggests that the port’s growth momentum is continuing. Zeebrugge also posted a much better performance in 2018, and 2019 will be even better as Cosco Shipping Ports’ (CSP) investment plan for its terminal continues. In addition, the Ocean Alliance has added Zeebrugge as one of its regional hubs and this should generate significant volumes of additional cargo.


Growing market share


The strong performance by Antwerp and the improving situation at Zeebrugge means that Belgian ports are seeing their share of northern Europe’s maritime cargo market rise. On a tonnage basis, Antwerp Port Authority (APA) claims that its share of the Hamburg-Le Havre port range container market in 2018 was 27.5%. This was up 0.7% on the previous year, and was largely at the expense of the German ports.


“Our container throughput continues to grow despite the weakened economic outlook,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO of APA. “This is good news for the port and it consolidates our excellent position as a container cargo hub in the
global logistics chain.”


With investment levels in infrastructure and the development of new facilities generally strong, the future of Belgium’s port industry appears exceedingly bright. But there are challenges, specifically when it comes to the next stage of Antwerp’s container terminal development programme.

 

“We urge Flanders to proceed soon with the approval of the draft preference decision on container handling capacity at the port,” said Annick De Ridder, port alderman of the City of Antwerp. “We can look back on a strong first quarter with continued growth in container traffic, and this confirms the role of the Port of Antwerp as one of the main economic pillars of the country and as a major employer. To secure the future prosperity of our port, we must expand.”


An integral part of Antwerp’s future is also to become a greener and more sustainable port, as it believes this can also give it a competitive edge in the region. A key element of this strategy is to encourage its customers to route
more cargo to/from the port by rail and barge. Rotterdam is taking similar measures, and so competition between two of northern Europe’s largest hubs will remain intense.


Steel wheels


On the rail front, Antwerp is working closely with Railport and Infrabel to ensure the port’s rail haulage capacity is used more efficiently and flexibly. This will hinge on better planning and, in particular, information being exchanged
seamlessly between rail users and the container handling facilities. Currently, the port is involved in a project called the Rail Traffic System, which is evaluating the use of digital technologies in this sphere.

 

This year has seen considerable progress made, with new services launched to several countries including Switzerland. Antwerp’s port management team is working hard to increase its share of the central European market, as it sees
considerable growth opportunities in markets like southern Germany, Switzerland and Europe.


The region has become something of a melting pot as ports in Germany, Rotterdam, the Adriatic and Black Sea all vie for a share of this market. “As a port authority, we are particularly interested in making our expertise available here,” explained Luc Arnouts, director of international relations and networks at APA. “Antwerp is not only a hub for imports and exports, but a reliable partner for the entire supply chain, and this means working together with logistics companies, railway operators, terminals and ports in the hinterland on sustainable and future-oriented solutions.”


In January, Schweizerzug AG doubled the frequency of its rail service between Antwerp and the Frenkendorf terminal, which is located near Basel, from two to four departures a week. In addition, the link between Frenkendorf and the
Niederglatt terminal near Zurich has been upgraded to a daily service. This means beneficial cargo owners based in the eastern part of the country are better connected to the port of Antwerp.

 

In other developments, Contargo AG is offering a rail alternative to its Antwerp-Basel barge operation. The company’s Antwerp TriRegio Express service runs twice a week between the port and the Basel Badischer station.

 

APA’s goal is to see 15% of its containerised cargo moved by rail by 2030. Currently, this mode accounts for just 7% of box transfers to/from the hinterland.

The Ocean Alliance’s NEU1 service has commenced calls at Zeebrugge
The Ocean Alliance’s NEU1 service has commenced calls at Zeebrugge

Taking to the water Meanwhile, APA’s Container Barge Action Plan (CBAP) is designed to shift 4% of cargo currently moved by truck to inland waterway transport modes by 2030. CBAP will increase the latter’s share of the market to 42% over the next 11 years.


According to APA, this will be achieved by increasing capacity and raising the efficiency and reliability of barge services. The authority is working closely with all its partners to drive consolidation and generate enhanced economies of scale. For instance, it wants all barges to carry a minimum of 30 TEU, and will implement such a measure in the future. In addition, new technologies and digital solutions will be introduced to improve scheduling, coordination of services and to ensure better information and data exchange occurs between the parties.

 

APA also plans to increase its presence in the European shortsea and near-sea trades. In particular, management sees growth opportunities in Spain, Turkey and the UK. “With the spectre of Brexit looming, shortsea shipping offers
a promising alternative to trucks travelling to and from the UK, as the mode involves fewer customs formalities,” APA said in a statement.


If the port’s initiatives in the rail, barge and shortsea sectors come to fruition, trucking’s share of Antwerp’s hinterland relays will be cut to an estimated 40- 43%. This compares with 55% currently. That will mean a significant reduction in carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulates pollution. Potentially, container transfers should also be faster as road congestion can be a problem in the area.


“As a community builder, we are working together with the port community to achieve an accessible port. We are working on various interesting transport alternatives both for goods and for people, in order to guarantee the accessibility of our port in a sustainable way,” explained De Ridder.


It was a point stressed forcibly by Vandermeiren. “It’s obvious that changes to infrastructure alone will not be enough,” he said. “We need a mental shift in order to make transport, not only of freight but also of people in and around Antwerp, more efficient.”

 

The executive is keen to encourage more box transfers at night, and following several workshops on the subject, a trial programme has been agreed. It will last for three months and involves all container terminals sited on the right
bank of the River Scheldt. Results will be monitored and decisions then taken on the next stage of the project. But the hope is that the test programme will prove viable and effective, and that, over a two-year period, the entire Antwerp port community will engage in its night-time logistics initiatives.

 

General and cold cargoes


While containers are a vitally important part of Antwerp’s business, as a general purpose port, its other cargo sectors and industrial activities are hugely significant. Consequently, new investments in its chemicals cluster and its cold store facilities should support strong growth in these activities in the future.


In February, Kallo-based Luik Natie Coldstore opened a new 6,000 pallet capacity refrigerated warehouse in the port, and next year will see the company commission the largest cold store in the port. It will be able to store 22,000 pallets and have systems and facilities that enable a full range of perishable products and phytosanitary inspections to take place.


Commenting on the developments, Stefaan Verhelst, managing director of Luik Natie Group, said: “With these new facilities, we believe in the future of the port of Antwerp. We want Antwerp to be known for more than just bananas, and we are ready to handle different items such as pineapples, mangos, avocados and other sorts of fruit and vegetables.”

 

He added: “In addition to acting as a transhipment partner for fresh fruit, Luik Natie Coldstore is very strong when it comes to loading and unloading palletised and bulk deepfreeze products such as deep-frozen fish, fries and meat.”


But what is also important about the company’s investments is its plan to be carbon-neutral next year. Consequently, all energy for its cold stores will be generated in-house from a mix of solar panels and wind turbines. The company is investing in the necessary battery capacity and will have a refrigeration system that uses only rainwater.


When Luik Natie Coldstore’s new warehouse opens in 2020, the Port of Antwerp will have a total storage capacity for perishable products in excess of 100,000 pallets.

 

In the neighbouring port of Zeebrugge, the emphasis is on consolidating its strength as one of Europe’s largest vehicle handling ports and resurrecting its container business. The latter has posted several disappointing years, squeezed by the large hubs of Rotterdam and Antwerp, and the decisions taken by the main ocean carriers/alliances to consolidate their mainline services at those two ports. But changes are taking place and, following growth of 8.7% in its box volumes in 2017, a 5.2% rise was posted in 2018. A total of 1.58M TEU was processed.


The catalyst for change has been Cosco Shipping Ports (CSP), which acquired majority control of the old APM Terminals-operated facility in 2017. Although the terminal, which has been renamed Cosco Shipping Ports Zeebrugge, remains underutilised (below 40%), new investments, corporate actions and revamp of its business model have put it in a much stronger position for the future. In particular, the terminal is now set up to offer a hub option for the Ocean Alliance.

 

Significant developments that have taken place since CSP gained control have included the sale of a 10% equity stake in the facility to CMA Terminals, a move described by Zhang Wei, vice chairman and managing director of CSP,
as “enhancing the strategic partnership between the companies, and maximising synergies between the terminal and shipping alliances”.


He elaborated: “The investment by CMA Terminals in CSP Zeebrugge enables the facility to further secure the volume from CMA CGM and the Ocean Alliance, and it will enhance its operational efficiency. This strategic partnership sets a successful example for the future cooperation among members of shipping alliances and terminals.”


In May, the Ocean Alliance’s NEU1 service started calling at Zeebrugge with its 11 x 18,980/21,413 TEU ships contributed by China Cosco Shipping and OOCL.


CSP has also agreed a strategic alliance with the Port Authority of Zeebrugge, which owns 5% of the terminal. This arrangement extends to CSP supporting the port authority’s plan to develop a maritime logistics platform that will
serve continental Europe and the UK.

 

Ro-ro on the rise


But it is not all about mainstream container operations. In 2018, Zeebrugge’s ro-ro traffic increased by a healthy 6.4% to almost 16 Mt. The strongest growth was posted on trades with Spain (+21.4%), Ireland (+16.8%) and the UK
(+5.7%). In the case of Spain, Cobelfret started a new service to Santander, and Finnlines phased in bigger ships on its Bilbao link.


Management at Zeebrugge is hopeful of another good year in the ro-ro sector with benefits expected to accrue from investments being made by carriers, such as P&O Ferrymasters, now controlled by DP World. In January, the
UK-based company launched new intermodal services to/from the Turkish ports of Pendik, Ambarli and Mersin via Trieste and its northern hubs in Rotterdam and Zeebrugge. The new services are scheduled six days a week and offer
highly competitive transit times of less than a week.


Wim Blomme, intermodal director at P&O Ferrymasters, said: “We are continuing to expand the reach of our services into Eastern Europe and Asia, to where many customers have moved their centres of production. This new link between Turkey and our European network will give them certainty on transit times and reduce their transport costs because of the partnerships we have put in place.”

 

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