WA container chain under ship bunching pressure

By: Rob McKay

Big ships concerns raised nationally as DP World’s Fremantle terminal congestion spike highlights landside transport issues

WA container chain under ship bunching pressure
Recent Fremantle container congestion have alarmed landside transporters


Container chain reforms nationally may be running out of steam as a confluence of trends put port systems under pressure.

What may be the latest manifestation has been in Fremantle, where Container Transport Alliance Australia (CTAA) reports landside logistics delays and difficulties over several days last week due to a heavy work program and multiple vessel arrivals at the DP World terminal.

But more broadly, state and national industry bodies point to the confluence of three main issues as injecting present and future strain on landside players:

  • the arrival of higher capacity ships, sometimes in short succession and known as ‘bunching’, leading to congestion at stevedoring terminals and container yards
  • the likelihood they will replace most if not all smaller ships that were the norm when reforms were put in place, due to consolidation and efficiency demands on global containership companies struggling with overcapacity
  • the financial impact of increasingly steep peaks and troughs on container transport firms, the intermittently severe demand for whose services often sees assets idle for significant periods.

Perhaps mitigating against that somewhat in Fremantle is the pre-Christmas timing, typically the busiest time of the year, that many amongst operators and port authorities did not expect there to be a peak time this year due to Western Australia’s economic malaise, and that, for DP World at least, its terminal experienced a significant spike in container numbers.

But, though it is unclear how full the two ships in the midst of its most recent issues were, it is also true that the Mongoose Hunter has a twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) capacity of 4,922 TEU and APL England of 5,780 TEU, according to shipping sources.

This is well above the average capacity seen around the turn of the decade of about 3,000 TEU a ship.

The CTAA has warned of the pressures before and the contributing factors are recognised by Road Freight NSW and industry body Ports Australia.

Road Freight NSW (RFNSW) general manager Simon O’Hara confirmed that is members were struggling with the peaks and troughs.

"It is happening," O’Hara says.

Ports Australia CEO David Anderson points out that the "trickle-down effect" of immense containerships in busier trade lanes pushing otherwise large ships into other routes has seen those with a capacity of 6,000 TEU of containers arriving in Australian ports more often.

"We’ve got quite big issues landside with existing vessels in any event," Anderson says before adding that his impression is "we will get more visits from vessels of that size but I think it will be a while before we get beyond that".

While he is confident that Australian ports will surmount the challenge, he highlights the need for greater short-haul container rail to and from port terminals and the continuing need to shield ports and their transport corridors from residential encroachment as continuing to be crucial.

He notes with concern that an apartment block in Fremantle had been allowed to go up some three metres from the heavy rail corridor.

On the Fremantle experience, CTAA pointed to the impact throughout the container chain of such difficulties.

"Container transport operators have reported truck delays in the DP World Fremantle Terminal of over four hours, with their ability to efficiently clear import containers from the facility severely impacted," CTAA director Neil Chambers says.

Chambers acknowledges DPW extended import free storage availability for an additional day for the AAX Service ships Mongoose Hunter and APL England, and waved ‘wrong zone’ and ‘no show’ fees for container transport operators. 

"While these concessions are welcomed, they don’t account for the significant additional costs associated with the delays, and the flow-on effects in the container logistics chain," he says.

"Transport operators have suffered significant delays attempting to complete stack run outs of import containers that normally allow operators to evacuate the containers from the Terminal during night shift operations on the first day of import availability."

"One example saw a major transport operator with a stack run planned for over 100 containers only able to collect 20 containers on the first day, requiring additional efforts and equipment throughout the remainder of this week to catch up on the backlog."

CTAA contends that containers aren’t being delivered on the second, third or potentially even the fourth day of availability at the wharf and ATN has confirmed this with local firms that preferred to remain anonymous.

This leads to the possibility of importers not being able to unpack containers and have them de-hired at empty container depots in the available time before they incur container detention fees from shipping lines.

"Who pays for the additional costs incurred due to the current inefficiencies at DP World Fremantle?  Transport operators, forwarders, importers and exporters, that’s who," Chambers says.

ATN has seen a statements that appears to support this, whereby, despite promises to port authorities to keep a close eye on the situation, a hard line is taken with customers who fail to meet compulsory de-hire deadlines if delays are not caused by the particular lines themselves.

CTAA also took DPW to task over communications, saying its members report "calls and texts to the Terminal shift supervisors go unanswered, leaving transport operators unable to plan to overcome the transport difficulties".

For DPW, the message is that though things did not go well on the weekend of December 3 and 4, much of it was outside its control.

"As reported, our Fremantle terminal was affected by severe vessel bunching at the weekend, the result of ongoing impacts to operations following super storms in Brisbane and Melbourne, and the usual seasonal peak," a DPW spokesperson tells ATN.

"Volumes have cleared through the terminal and we are back to our average truck turn time of 30 minutes.

"We apologise to our customers for the impact to their operations in this busy pre-Christmas period.

"Terminal staff takes as many calls as possible over periods of delay and congestion and also communicate via regular blanket announcements through the Vehicle Booking System provider 1-stop.

"These communications commenced Thursday prior to vessel arrival and continued every R&D open day."

It is understood that DPW is facing container totals 50 per cent higher than normal this month but expects bunching to ease off from here on.

Some there feel an unrealistic view of what is possible in such circumstances is prevalent in the transport industry and that some criticism ignores average truck turnaround times (TTT) of less than 25 minutes for almost all the year.

Despite that, it is understood some container transporters have faced difficulties in Fremantle over the past two months as well, with free storage periods running into second and third days consistently and bulk runs being curtailed.  

There is also speculation of terminal machinery issues in WA port and trucking circles involving a lack of working rubber tyred gantry cranes (RTGs), though this has been denied.

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