Any port in a perfect storm: UK container trade is grinding to a halt


Across the River Test from the port of Southampton is a point called Cracknore Hard. From there you can see the giant cruise liners such as Queen Mary 2 and Norwegian Encore sitting idle, and the hulking cranes of the docks, which are not. At the water’s edge John Fell is fishing for bass and flounder.

“I went to the tackle shop yesterday and they didn’t have the stuff I wanted,” he complains. “I couldn’t even get a net for my boat. There are shortages everywhere.”

The chances are his nets and tackle are stored in one of the thousands of containers stacked four or five high, like makeshift apartment blocks, in the mammoth yards and industrial estates that surround the city.

Southampton is experiencing heavy congestion in its docks, causing long delays to imported goods getting to manufacturers and shops. Last week, it was announced that delays at Felixstowe, Britain’s largest port, which accounts for 40% of the nation’s container trade, have been exacerbated by thousands of containers of PPE stockpiled at the site.

Honda shut down production at its Swindon plant, its biggest in Europe, last Wednesday “due to transport-related parts delays”. Manufacturing and retail tend to run on a “just in time” supply chain, meaning clogs in the system can quickly lead to factory-floor and high-street shortages.

Unable to unload at Felixstowe, container ships have rerouted to Southampton, putting more pressure on the port, leading some ships to divert to Liverpool or even Rotterdam. “Last week, we had 44,000 TEUs [20ft-equivalent unit] on the dock,” says Nathan Carr, operations manager of the haulage firm Abacus Logistics, located in the yard just outside dock 20. “The maximum last year was about 35,000.”

Abacus, says Carr, “shifts everything: power tools, TVs, bicycles.” He’s standing next to a wrecked old Jaguar that looks as if it’s bound for the scrap heap. In fact, it’s going in a container to Dubai, where it will be refitted and sold to a collector. It’s a rare example of goods traffic going the other way. “Other than waste, we don’t export a great deal from this country,” say one haulier. “Just empties.”

He means empty containers. But the problem is that ships that are running late are not hanging around to pick up the empties. So a container mountain is taking shape, as the docks don’t have space to house the empty containers, which are then transported to storage yards, bringing more demands on the haulage industry and further delays.

The phrase “perfect storm” has been working hard in the current logjam. Carr says there are a variety of factors at play that have led to the delays. Following the drop in shipping due to the global lockdown, a backlog in trade had to be worked through. The extra Christmas business has also had an effect.

Another haulier speaks of intransigent shipping lines and the expansion of the container ships themselves. “They used to be 6,000 TEU vessels. Now there are 23,000 TEUs.” The result, says the haulier, is that it takes far longer to unload them. But British ports are not renowned for their speed of loading and unloading.

Then there is the uncertainty about Brexit. “Still nobody knows what’s going to happen. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario. I think a lot of shippers have decided to bring as much as they can as early as they can,” said Carr.

Like Felixstowe, most of the cargo at Southampton is from the far east: China, Japan and South Korea. So it’s not European imports that are the issue, but the speculation about possible rises in tariffs when single market rules cease to apply at the end of December.

“People are importing on a fixed tariff, so they know what import duty they’re paying on the goods,” explains Bill White, general manager of the container storage and haulage company Eldapoint. “They’re filling their warehouses with goods at the tariff they know because no one knows if we’re getting a deal.”

Eldapoint’s yard in Eling is filled with empty containers, great towering canyons of multicoloured metal blocks. White says he’s at over 100% capacity because the company has had to give over lorry parking space to the containers.

But despite the current problems, container shipping is highly organised, with duties logged and prepaid. The real problems, he says, will come with road haulage from Europe coming in on the ferries to Dover and Folkestone, and small businesses having to deal with a mass of new paperwork.

“Indecision and lack of information about what will happen is causing a lot of trouble,” says White. “It’s going to be chaos.”

Although largely unrelated to Brexit, the troubles that British ports are suffering may be a preview of the hold-ups and shortages that could occur if a trade deal is not reached with the EU. Shipping and the import business is largely a smooth and invisible trade that takes place on docks and in yards conveniently removed from public view. No one notices it unless there’s a problem. But the economy runs on a tight schedule with very little margin for delay.

At Cracknore Hard, John Fell is reminiscing about the old Southampton docks, manned with hundreds of stevedores, when his friend Chris Barnes lands a fish. Much to their disappointment, it’s just a tiny bass. Perhaps the big fish, like some of the giant container ships, have decided to go elsewhere.
Source: The Guardian



Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *