By Theo Notteboom
When container shipping lines design a weekly service between Asia and North Europe, they have to decide how many and which ports of call to include in the schedule. On the North European side, they typically ensure they serve the biggest port regions. Therefore, almost all liner services on the North Europe – Far East trade have ports of call in the Rhine-Scheldt Delta (Rotterdam, Antwerp, Zeebrugge), the north German multi-port gateway region (Hamburg, Bremerhaven, Wilhelmshaven) and the southeast coast of the UK (Felixstowe, Southampton, London Gateway), see an earlier post for more details on multi-port gateway regions in Europe. Depending on the needs, they add calls in northern France (Le Havre, Dunkirk) and or the Baltic/Scandinavia (Gothenburg, Aarhus, Gdansk).
One of the challenges shipping lines face is to decide whether to call at only one port in a specific multi-port gateway region or call at more than one port in the same region (also called multi-porting). The graph shows the situation for the ports in the Rhine-Scheldt Delta region. It depicts the shares of the total number of liner services on the North Europe – Asia trade that only call at Rotterdam, Antwerp, Zeebrugge or Amsterdam, plus the shares of liner services calling at more than one port (e.g. Antwerp and Rotterdam within the same liner service). This leads to a few interesting findings.
First, at present 90% of all liner services on the North Europe – Asia trade call at Rotterdam. In 1998 this share was below 80%. In almost half of the cases the visit to Rotterdam is combined with a call to Antwerp or Zeebrugge within the same loop. However, Rotterdam increasingly serves as the only port of call in the Delta. The share of the ‘Rotterdam only’ option has increased from 38% in 1998 to 48% in 2015.
Second, the share of liner services calling at Antwerp decreased sharply from 55% in 1998 to 33% in 2012, with the majority of the services combining Antwerp and Rotterdam. In 2012, only 4% of all services called only Antwerp. The situation in 2015 improved: 39% of the 21 services call Antwerp and in 10% of the cases Antwerp is now the only port of call in the Rhine-Scheldt Delta. The major reshuffling of strategic alliances in liner shipping have clearly benefited Antwerp’s position on the North Europe – Asia trade.
Third, 14% of all weekly container services feature Zeebrugge and Rotterdam as ports of calls within the same liner service. This share amounted to 21% in 2012. It is remarkable that the coastal port of Zeebrugge is only called at in combination with Rotterdam. In other words, Zeebrugge and Antwerp never appear together in the same liner service, and Zeebrugge is never the only port of call in the Rhine-Scheldt Delta. This seems to suggest that Zeebrugge and Antwerp are treated primarily as substitutes in deep-sea liner shipping. This is striking as it is often assumed that a high degree of complementarity exists between the Flemish load centres in terms of location (coastal port versus upstream port) and overall traffic structure (short-sea versus deep-sea routes). But it seems the market sees more complementarity between Zeebrugge and Rotterdam when it comes to the Asia-Europe trade lane. Amsterdam only played a role as port of call on mainline trade routes in the mid 2000s.
Fourth, while Antwerp is often considered as a strong export platform, Rotterdam, often seen as a prime import port, also managed to increasingly function as last port of call on the North Europe – Asia trade. In July 2015, Antwerp acted as the last port of call in four liner services on the considered trade route, and only one time as the first port of call. Rotterdam is first port of call in seven scheduled weekly services and last port of call in another five liner services. For two services, i.e. the AE5/Albatros service of 2M (Maersk Line/MSC) and the FAL2/AEX7/AEC8 service of the Ocean Three alliance (CMA CGM, CSCL and UASC), Rotterdam even succeeded in serving both as first and last port of call in the same loop.
Fifth, although 19 of the 21 services call at the port of Rotterdam, the actual number of weekly calls in Rotterdam in July 2015 amounted to 22. This is due to three so-called double calls, meaning that the same vessel visits the port twice within the same loop before sailing back to Asia. Also Antwerp succeeded in attracting a double call recently. Double calls are on the rise and can boost call sizes and volumes for the ports concerned.