Volumes in Zeebrugge dropped by over 20%, from more than 2m teu to slightly over 1.5m teu, and PSA decided to close down its container terminal in the port.
Meanwhile, volumes in Antwerp grew. Antwerp grew with roughly the amount of volumes that was lost in Zeebrugge, and here MSC and PSA are expanding and relocating their jointly operated terminal.
Antwerp Port Authority is also pushing ahead with the development of a new dock, the so called Saeftinghedock on the back of the strong growth of container volumes. It argues that this additional capacity is needed by 2020 or 2021, so development will need to start soon.
This is the backdrop to a recently announced planned commercial co-operation between the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge. The ports will work together in the field of deep sea containers, although how this co-operation will work in practice is unclear.
Zeebrugge has expressed its support for the Saeftinghedock development plans of Antwerp, while Antwerp has publicall y recognised the value of Zeebrugge as a ‘container platform’ in Belgium.
However, this ‘everybody wins’ approach seems to depend critically on a relatively high growth scenario. In that context, it is good to remember that the total volume handled by Antwerp and Zeebrugge together in 2015 was only about 300,000 teu higher than in 2008.
Not so long ago, Zeebrugge aimed to handle more than 4m teu (provided investments in port expansion and hinterland access are made), while Antwerp still has space to grow within its existing facilities; accommodating about 3m teu more in existing port areas, including the Deurgangdock, is feasible.
In view of the above, in my opinion the announced commercial co-operation makes a lot of sense, but it would have made even more sense if it had started without the need to invest in additional capacity.
Instead, the ports should invest in productivity increases and a better utilisation of existing assets, both of which would create more value for society, certainly in a current scenario of sustained moderate growth volumes in the region.
First published by The Analyst in his Port Strategy column.