The Port of Hamburg suffered a setback after a German court halted long-delayed work to deepen the River Elbe, which connects Europe’s second-largest ocean container hub to the open sea.
Deepening the 38-mile navigation channel to the North Sea is key to maintaining Hamburg’s competitive position in the North Europe port range as it will enable it to handle the latest generation of mega-container ships around the clock regardless of tidal conditions.
Currently, fully loaded large container vessels can only enter or leave the port at high tide, prompting warnings from ocean carriers that they may be forced to divert sailings to deep-water terminals.
The administrative court in Leipzig temporarily halted the preliminary dredging to consider legal challenges by two environmental groups, which claim it violates conservation laws.
The ruling comes a month after the opening of Germany’s first deep-water terminal in the neighboring Port of Wilhelmshaven, which can handle the largest container ships of up to 18,000 20-foot-equivalent units regardless of tidal conditions.
The $1.6 billion Jade Weser terminal, which is building up to an 3 million-TEU annual capacity, is offering introductory discounts of 70 percent to attract carriers from rival ports.
It is unclear how long the court will take to hear the appeals, but work is not expected to resume until mid-2013 at the earliest.
It is also not clear whether the court will eventually rule in favor of the deepening of the Elbe. Earlier in the year, it upheld a controversial ban on nighttime flights at Frankfurt airport, sought by environmentalists, that mainly affects freighters.
The $540 million project to dredge the Elbe to allow ships with a maximum draft of 47.6 feet to enter Hamburg at high tide and up to 44.3 feet regardless of the tide, only cleared the final hurdle in April following years of arguments over its environmental and safety impact.
HHLA, Hamburg biggest container handler, says it loses as much as $33 million a year from draft-related shipping delays. Further delays could prove costly as Rotterdam, Europe’s top container port, starts to bring on additional annual deep-sea capacity of 8.5 million TEUs in 2013-14.
Despite the draft restrictions, Hamburg has outperformed its main northwest European competitors. Hamburg’s container traffic increased 14.2 percent in 2011 to 9 million TEUs, while Rotterdam was up 6 percent at 11.9 million TEUs and Antwerp, which also faces draft restrictions, grew just 2.3 percent to 8.7 million TEUs.
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