It's been a long time, but finally there is confirmed word that CP Ships is about to enter the Asia-Europe trades. CP's Contship Containerlines has had a limited involvement in these trades for many years, courtesy of its Ocean Star and Tour-du-Monde services. But the news that CP Ships is indeed taking space on CMA CGM's Asia-Mediterranean-Europe services possibly puts the final piece of the global jigsaw puzzle in place.

The marketing and sales of this new route will be handled by Contship and Lykes, a sister CP Ships company. The establishment of agencies and sales offices across Asia in recent months by CP Ships companies now makes sense.The growth of CP Ships is one of shipping's more incredible stories. Only a few years ago, Contship's scattered services had an antipodean aspect. Lykes, with or without Chapter 11, mainly spelled trans-Atlantic. TMM was Mexico. Anything else meant ice and Montreal.

Cleverly crafted together -- not rushed, not shaken, just gently stirred -- the new CP Ships is heading for a position among the world's top container carriers.

CP Ships will enter the Asia-Europe trades next month with eastbound and westbound sailings on CMA CGM's French Asia Line. This service has a strong China connection and, more importantly, will be upgraded in May from 4,000-TEU vessels to 6,500-TEU ships. Port calls will be coordinated, so that only eight ships will be needed, instead of the current nine.

In March, CP Ships will also start moving its Asia-Europe containers on CMA CGM's North China Express, which interestingly enough, also has a strong China connection!

And still in March, CP Ships containers will also start moving on the Asia-Mediterranean part of CMA CGM's MexTPX service, which is effectively a pendulum service linking the U.S. West Coast, Asia and the Med. The trans-Pacific part does not come into this agreement -- well, not yet anyway.

Both services are also being upgraded with ships of up to 4,000-TEU capacity. It has been estimated that CMA CGM is piling on a 50 0ncrease in capacity on this major east-west trade lane this year. That is probably why CP Ships found this the easy way in, and CMA CGM felt a little relieved it could count on its large ships to run at a profit.

So in total, CP Ships will launch not one, but three new services on the Asia-Europe trades. And incredibly, by the end of 2001, CP reckons it will be moving no less than 1,500 TEUs each week, each direction.

Now I'm no smart guy (believe it or not), but logic tells me something here. I have been reliably informed the kickoff slot allocation for CP on these services is around 800 TEUs a week, each way. So by the end of the year, that figure is expected to be practically doubled.

It is fortunate for CP that its longtime partner in other trades, CMA CGM, decided to build bigger ships and was looking for someone else to fill them.

But it seems incredible that suddenly from nowhere, CP Ships can rally up 800 boxes each week on a trade that apparently is still suffering, and that it can be confident enough to predict that it expects to nearly double that figure in nine months.

Now there's nothing sinister going on here, but I just get the feeling perhaps CMA CGM came along at the right time.

I have a feeling CP Ships has been marketing this for a long time. Well, at least testing the water with promises of a service or two or three, and not necessarily with CMA CGM.

Think about it. Who are the big players on the Asia-Europe trades?

There's a long list, and at least three of them -- Orient Overseas Container Line, P&O Nedlloyd, Hapag-Lloyd -- must have, at some time or other, come under the eyes of Ray Miles, president of CP Ships.

And if I'm right, and the three potentials did snub any advances of a merger or buyout, then either the price was not right, or the idea not convincing enough.

Now I am also sure that Miles & Co would not be foolish enough to put all the proverbial eggs in one basket. So for CP Ships, CMA CGM was the option that was always going to be there, should all else fail.

Think about it. When did you last hear of a newcomer to Asia-Europe scooping in 1,500 containers each week in just nine months in the marketplace?

Whatever, it will be interesting to watch how this venture develops between now and the end of the year.

Schedule integrity is a CP Ships selling point. I'm not saying it is not for CMA CGM, mind you. Just mentioning it!

Paul Richardson can be reached at 011-44-208-942-1993 or xdd80@dial.pipex.com. Richardson is the editor of PR News Service, an e-mail news service covering container shipping.