The top 4 European container ports have remained unchanged since the start of containerization in Europe in the late 1960s: the Dutch port of Rotterdam, the Belgian port of Antwerp and the German ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven have always occupied the top spots in TEU terms in the European container port system. These four ports are all located in the so-called Hamburg-Le Havre range in northwest Europe. Hamburg for a long time ranked second in Europe, but since the crisis year 2009 Antwerp successfully challenged Hamburg’s position. In 2018, the throughput gap between Antwerp and Hamburg amounted to almost 2.5 million TEU, while Rotterdam handled nearly 3.5 million TEU more than Antwerp.
The top 4 European container ports have remained unchanged since the start of containerization in Europe
The hegemony of these top 4 container ports is being undermined by strong growth in the main container ports in the Mediterranean. In 2018, Valencia in Spain (no. 5 in Europe) narrowed the throughput gap with Bremerhaven to only 360,000 TEU, while also Piraeus (Greece), Algeciras (Spain), and even Barcelona (Spain) are closing in fast on Bremerhaven.
Bremerhaven is very likely to lose its number 4 spot in the European container port rankings and could even end up in position 7 in 2019
The growth figures in Q1 2019 confirm that Bremerhaven is very likely to lose its number 4 spot in the European container port rankings. Bremerhaven recorded a 7.7% decline in the first quarter partly due to the move of some liner services to Hamburg. The top 4 Med ports recorded very strong year-on-year growth in the first quarter of this year: +24.40% at the Piraeus Container Terminal (Cosco Shipping Ports), +12.88% in Valencia, +8.2% in Algeciras and +5.97% in Barcelona. If these ports can maintain their growth momentum throughout 2019, Piraeus will unseat Bremerhaven to become the fourth largest container port in Europe. Even Valencia and Algeciras are likely to overtake Bremerhaven in 2019 pushing the German port to position 7 in the European container port ranking. The strong growth recorded in Barcelona (no. 9 in Europe in 2018) in the past few years has opened the possibility to move into position 8 in the foreseeable future (currently occupied by Felixstowe).
The positions of the top three European container ports remain undisputed for now
The positions of the top three European container ports (i.e. Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg) remain undisputed for now (see the throughput gaps in the figure). While Rotterdam and Antwerp have recorded healthy growth figures in the past few years, Hamburg is somewhat lagging behind. Finally, it should be noted that a large part of the growth observed in the mentioned Med ports is related to the sea-sea transhipment business: Piraeus and Algeciras are almost pure transhipment hubs, while Valencia and Barcelona combine transhipment flows with gateway cargo to the (mainly Spanish) hinterland. All four north-European ports mentioned above also combine transhipment flows with import/export cargo.