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  June 14th, 2018 | Written by

Ro/Ro Size Matters

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  • One key ro/ro trend: the enlargement of vessel size thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal.
  • Vehicle and equipment carriers followed container carriers in deploying mega-ships.
  • WWL’s HERO class has a capacity of around 8,000 CEU.

It’s no longer unusual these days for a vessel like the Höegh Target, the largest Pure Car and Truck Carrier (PCTC) ship in the world, to be serviced on one end of the North American continent while a Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics‘ HERO class vessel is being loaded or unloaded at the other. It’s emblematic of one key trend influencing the ro/ro business in North America today: the enlargement of vessel size thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal. Much as container carriers have begun to deploy mega-ships that the new locks can accommodate, so have vehicle and equipment carriers followed suit.

The Höegh Target is an 8,500 CEU (car equivalent unit) neopanamax ship while WWL’s HERO class, which stands for High Efficency Ro/Ro Vessel, has a capacity of around 8,000 CEU, and measures 200 meters long and 36.5 meters wide. PCTCs are designed to accommodate all types of vehicles, from completed passenger cars to construction machinery.

The growing size of the ships is not the only resemblance between the container and ro/ro businesses these days. Both fleets suffer from an overcapacity that has led to downward pressure on rates, and that has turned up the heat on competition. In today’s environment, container carriers are competing not only with each other but with bulk and breakbulk carriers as well.

Many ro/ro carriers, too, are competing for a diversity of cargo, including breakbulk and lift-on/lift off (lo/lo) shipments. Ro-ro carriers are building ships designed to carry high and heavy and breakbulk cargoes. For example, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics introduced the Mark V vessel a few years ago, a ship that the carrier describes as a ro-ro “super vessel.” A Panamax vessel that serves in round-the-world trades, the Mark V has over half a million square feet in deck area, of which over 330,000 square feet is reserved for high and heavy cargo. In short, everyone is competing against everyone.

“The development of the new, wider Panama Canal locks have opened up the possibility to explore wide-beam vessel designs,” said Simon White, head of trade management ocean operations at Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. “Since those locks opened a few months back, WWL has been able to deploy these vessels into our global trading patterns.”

The HERO vessels joined WWL’s fleet in 2016 and combine the features of PCTC and ro/ro vessels. WWL deploys a global fleet of 60 vessels which includes a mix of PCTCs, modern deep sea ro/ro vessels, and the latest generation—the HERO class. The Höegh Target is the first in a series of six larger, neopanamax PCTCs that the car carrier Höegh is currently adding to its fleet. The vessel’s extra width increases the ship’s capacity by 700 cars.

“In the breakbulk market, ro/ro competes with container vessels, heavy lift, and multi-purpose vessel types,” said White, “all of which are experiencing their own issues related to overcapacity.”

Vessels capable of carrying a combination of cargoes, it is worth noting, are nothing new. Atlantic Container Lines has been sailing purpose-built container-ro/ro (con/ro) vessels since the 1980s. Given the current environment, it should come as no surprise that ACL is fielding a new class of larger and more efficient ships.

ACL recently introduced the first of its new class of con/ro vessels, the G4 series, which builds upon the strengths of its G3 class and improves upon them. When the G3s were first delivered in the 1980s, they were considered revolutionary for combining ro/ro cargo beneath deck and containers stacked overhead.

The old con/ro design—with the combination of relatively light ro/ro cargo beneath deck and heavier boxes on deck—limited the number of containers that could be stacked on deck. The new G4s are only marginally longer and wider than the G3s, yet provide for a 105 percent increased container capacity, 31 per cent increased car capacity, and 45 percent increased ro/ro capacity. The design secret lies in putting the bulk of the ro/ro cargo amidships while stowing containers in cells fore and aft of the central ro/ro section.

“The G4s are also faster, greener and more efficient than their predecessors,” said an ACL spokesperson. “Notwithstanding a speed increase of 10 percent, fuel consumption per TEU has been reduced by 50 percent.”

During her maiden voyage, the Atlantic Star, the first of the G4s to sail, crossed the Atlantic with an equivalent of 2,400 TEU and all of its ro/ro completely filled.

In developing its HERO vessels, WWL also sought to combine the best features from previous vessel designs.  The trend towards an increasingly fractured transportation approach by shippers—in which manufacturers arrange for smaller cargo shipments to more delivery locations around the world—led to a focus on vessel design that combines flexibility and reduced emissions. WWL’s fleet offers ramp capacity up to 500 tons, and can accommodate cargo up to 7.1 meters high and 12 meters wide.

“These vessels are highly capable in terms of the types of cargo that can be carried, both in height and weight, as well as high efficiency performance,” said White.

Competition from container carriers has had a negative impact on ro/ro volumes, but so have developments native to the ro/ro and breakbulk marketplaces. It’s a combination of circumstances that has put a great deal of competitive pressure on all the carriers.

An extensive part of WWL’s business portfolio now includes cargo services for the breakbulk segment, cargo that is typically referred to as oversize or out-of-gauge—cargo that is large, heavy and which cannot be driven or rolled independently. Examples are rail equipment, energy and industrial equipment, project cargo, aviation components, oil and gas project components, mining and construction cargo, machine tools, cranes, yachts and boats, and some bulk commodities such as rubber, timber products, and steel.

“WWL has invested heavily across its entire fleet to be able to provide extended capabilities for breakbulk cargo,” noted White. “In some instances, WWL can provide specialized equipment to handle and transport certain types of breakbulk such as rail cars, and WWL offers handling services and collaborative planning for handling and transporting specialized cargo to ensure quality and safety.”