By Theo Notteboom
The current volatility in the container business is very visible when looking at the results of the container ports in the Rhine-Scheldt Delta, the largest container port region in Europe in volume terms and ranked 6th worldwide. Dutch and Belgian ports together handled 23.54 million TEU in 2015 or just 0.45% more than in 2014. Rotterdam continues to monopolize the Dutch container port system handling 12.23 million TEU in 2015, a small decline of 0.51% compared to 2014. Amsterdam handled a modest 51,634 TEU in 2015 compared to 57,399 TEU in 2014.
The Belgian container port system relies on two ports: upstream port Antwerp and coastal port Zeebrugge, with bulk and break bulk port Ghent handling a very small container volume. Antwerp had a strong year with a growth of 7.5% in container throughput, by far the best result among the large container ports in the Hamburg-Le Havre range. The Scheldt port reached 9.65 million TEU in 2015, thereby overtaking Hamburg to become the second largest container port in Europe after Rotterdam. The Belgian port of Zeebrugge initially overcame the crisis very well, even becoming the ninth largest container port in Europe in 2010, but afterwards booked traffic losses. This trend further reinforced in 2015 with a significant drop in container volumes of 23.8% compared to 2014. With 1.56 million TEU handled in 2015, the coastal port handled nearly a million TEU less compared to record year 2010. While Antwerp reaped the full benefits of the reshuffling in strategic alliances in liner shipping including an increase in Far East service calls, the same developments negatively affected Zeebrugge’s position. Thanks to Antwerp’s strong performance, the Belgian port system saw a modest increase from 11.06 million TEU in 2014 to 11.24 million TEU in 2015 (+1.6%).
Combined container volumes in the Belgian container ports closed in fast on Dutch ports during the 1990s and the early 2000s. In 2010 the gap was almost closed, but in more recent years the traffic difference stabilized at around 10%. The graph shows that 2015 did not significantly change the throughput balance between Belgian and Dutch ports: in 2015 the Belgian container port system handled 8.7% less than the Dutch port system.
The year 2016 will become an interesting one. Against the backdrop of a sluggish container market mainly fuelled by a lower growth in China and weak demand in Russia, the ports are preparing themselves for future growth. Antwerp hopes to feel the full impact of the move of MSC from the Delwaidedock on the right bank of the Scheldt River to the Deurganckdock on the left bank. The new MPET terminal (MSC/PSA) at the Deurganckdock is expected to have a capacity of 9 million TEU when fully developed, compared to about 5 million TEU in the old Delwaidedock facility. It should give MSC and 2M-partner Maersk Line ample room for growth. At the same time, the Antwerp Gateway terminal operated by a consortium led by DP World aims to continue its strong growth path of 2015. Antwerp also hopes to further advance its plans for the construction of a new Saeftinghedock. The port of Rotterdam is hoping that the first full year of operation of its two large scale new container facilities at Maasvlakte 2 will help the port to generate positive results in 2016. Both APM Terminals and Rotterdam World Gateway came on stream in 2015. Zeebrugge is undergoing a major terminal reconfiguration involving the closure of PSA’s OCZ terminal. To secure growth in the future, the ports continue to actively target transhipment markets in the Baltic, the UK and southern Europe and hinterland areas in southern Germany, Italy, South France (cf. Lyon area) and Eastern and Central Europe, next to a continued focus on their cargo rich core service areas (the Benelux, western Germany and northern France). The year 2016 might bring more joint initiatives in port-hinterland development. The CEO of the Port of Antwerp recently called for more cooperation between Antwerp and Rotterdam in this area. The year 2016 might also bring the first joint business initiatives and results of the recently announced commercial (container) alliance between Antwerp and Zeebrugge.