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  December 30th, 2015 | Written by

Are U.S. West Coast Ports Ready for Ultra-Large Container Vessels?

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  • Marc Bourdon, president of CMA CGM (America): Handling megaships “all comes down to an investment in cranes.”
  • The Benjamin Franklin called at Los Angeles not fully loaded because the cranes at the terminal weren’t tall enough.
  • “For a ship of this size to make sense it needs to be full and if we can’t fill them up, the scale doesn’t make sense.”

In its latest issue of Container Insight, Drewry Maritime Research questions whether U.S. West Coast ports are ready to handle the biggest containerships on a routine basis.
The initial test of that capability was the arrival at the Port of Los Angeles on December 26 of the 18,000-TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, the largest containership to call at any U.S. port, to date.

With a length of 1,309 feet and a beam of 177 feet, the 185,000-ton vessel is the largest containership in the CMA CGM Group and is the first containership of its capacity and size to be built by a Chinese shipyard, namely the China State Shipbuilding Corp.

“Clearly, there wasn’t too much trouble bringing a vessel of this size into the port,” said Marc Bourdon, president of CMA CGM (America). “But what it all comes down to is an investment in cranes and the other infrastructure needed to handle ships of this size. The terminal itself has to be able to handle the cargo on and off the ship, while the railways and trucks that serve the ports have to have adequate capability. These are the challenges we face today.”

The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin called at Los Angeles with her cellular holds full and containers stacked seven- high on-deck. The ULCV (Ultra-Large Container Vessel) can have containers stacked on-deck 10-high, but it couldn’t accommodate more boxes because the cranes at the APM Terminal at Pier 400 weren’t tall enough to accommodate the ship at full capacity.

It takes, he said, “calls like this to get all the stakeholders to have a better understanding of what needs to be done. Here we need those cranes to be high enough and for a ship of this size to make sense it needs to be full and if we can’t fill them up, the scale doesn’t make sense.”

Industry media reports had the ship joining the Asia-U.S. West Coast “Pearl River Express” service, part of the ‘Ocean Three’ alliance that normally operates with seven ships of around 11,400 TEUs each, but, Bourdon told Global Trade, the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin would initially be deployed on the French carrier’s Asia-Europe trade route, and “as soon as ports on the U.S. West Coast [Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle] are ready we will reconsider our strategy.”

According to Drewry Maritime Research, while a useful exercise, the arrival of one 18,000-TEU ship “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 U.S. West Coast (USWC) ports need to do to get there.”
Bigger ships, the London-based consultancy said, “demand faster container handling speed and operational productivity. However, Drewry says while overall berth productivity does increase with ship size, it does not increase directly in line.”

This is because “the length of ULCVs has not increased in proportion with their TEU intake (they have got wider, deeper, and stacked higher instead) meaning the number of gantry cranes deployed per vessel cannot be increased in direct proportion to ship sizes.”
Terminals, it added, “have to prepare for much greater peaks in container activity, as the average size of ships grows and more cargo is squeezed onto fewer weekly services. Researchers say this problem is exacerbated on the USWC as ships often only call at a couple of ports, unlike in Europe, meaning those U.S. ports have to handle a higher ratio of boxes per ship call.”
The size of containerships deployed on the Asia-USWC route has been steadily increasing. There are now over 50 ships of 10,000 TEUs or more deployed on the route, compared to 14 at the start of 2014 with Drewry analysts saying the upsizing will continue on the route.
“It’s important for the U.S. West Coast ports to step up since 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.”
U.S. West Coast 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 railroads,” Drewry said.
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 union dockworkers, something that seems a long way off.”
USWC ports, concluded the maritime consultancy, “are not yet ready 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.”