China's growth drives activity at European ports

With volumes at the Dutch Port of Rotterdam (www.port.rotterdam.nl) increasing an averageof 12%, it's like adding the cargo from a small-to medium-sized port to an already large and busy operation, notes Ron Roest, general manager of logistics for Holland International Distribution Council (www.hidc.nl).

The volumes aren't necessarily evenly spaced, Roest points out. The lower end of that increase can be 5% greater volume, but the peaks can be as much as a 20% increase over prior levels. When you're operating near full capacity, if something out of the ordinary happens, it can easily create delays and a ripple effect along the supply chain, he says.

Calling the growth "unique," Port of Rotterdam CEO Willem Scholten says, "The rise of China, in itself and as a catalyst for developments elsewhere, is playing an important role." In the past couple of years, investment in the port has been heavier than anywhere else in the Netherlands.

As a port user, Roest is aware of the investment plans to expand the port. However, capacity from those investments won't come on line for another two or three years, so in the meantime efforts are focused on applying all of the available flexibility and manpower to handle the ships.

One step was to move the inland waterways traffic away from the main container terminal to allow it to concentrate on the large ocean-going container ships. Inland waterways transportation is an important link in European logistics. Recent estimates indicate inland waterway transportation will increase 15% in the next 30 years, says Roest, or approximately 2% per year. Other expansion plans include a new railway connection.

Meanwhile, not every European port is operating quite as efficiently. Juergen Sorgenfrei, chairman of the German Port of Hamburg (www.hafen-hamburg.de), refers to delays of up to "many days" in handling containers at other European ports. Shippers and consignees must paydelay surcharges and ocean-going vesselshavetowait for a berth, he says.

"Neither growth in volume nor the ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security Code) introduction, nor the current intense construction activities in the port have given us comparable problems."

Through 2002 and 2003, the Port of Hamburg saw a 46% increase in container shipping to and from the Far East. During the same two-year period, container shipping with the Baltic Sea region also increased 42%, Sorgenfrei notes.

Hamburg has land for expansion, and it is planning additional terminals like Altenwerder. Expanded intermodal rail connections with partners like the Port of Lubeck also help move containers through the Port of Hamburg as fast as possible, Sorgenfrei adds.

Altenwerder will be a model of efficiency, according to Sorgenfrei. It will move 2.5 million containers on half the land required for conventional terminals, he says, because it will be capable of stacking containers eight high vs. the conventional four-container height of other terminals.

Technology has also come into play at European ports. Innovations in automated container handling at Rotterdam and terminal technology at Hamburg help smooth the flow of information and cargo. Also, the Belgian Port of Antwerp (www.portofantwerp.be) has joined the GTN Portal developed by GT Nexus (www.gtnexus.com) to provide integrated electronic shipment transaction service for shippers, agents and forwarders.

Though the ports don't expect current growth rates to continue, port executives and port users anticipate growing from current levels at a somewhat slower pace. The question that remains is, will infrastructure and operations developments stay ahead of the volumes, or will Europe's leading ports start to bend under the weight of continued growth?

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