The crisis at the Gothenburg port deepened on Wednesday as its longest-serving carrier, Atlantic Container Line (ACL), said it might be forced to leave due to ongoing longshore labor disruptions. This was on top of terminal operator APMT declaring a partial, six-month lockout and Maersk and Safmarine implementing an indefinite booking stop effective on May 10.
Poor productivity and the inability to secure weekend labor and to have all its customers’ cargo worked during port calls, amid other challenges, might force ACL to withdraw after serving Gothenburg continuously since 1967, Chief Executive Officer Andy Abbott told JOC.com on Wednesday. The company, with a storied history, operates a niche multipurpose and container trans-Atlantic service using the fourth generation of its combination RORO/Containerships (CONRO), the largest such vessels in service today.
“Gothenburg has always been one of ACL’s unique, main line ports. But the service and costs have deteriorated in a progressively worse manner over the past 18 months, to the point where Gothenburg is now our most expensive and least productive port in Europe — a bad combination,” Abbott said. “We’re hoping that these guys can get their act together soon because we don’t want to get up and leave but the situation is becoming more and more untenable.”
Citing the lockout, Maersk Line and Safmarine told customers Wednesday that it will no longer accept bookings for cargo moving through Gothenburg, which handled about 800,000 TEUs last year. The carriers said the booking stop would continue until "we have a clear overview of how the announced mirror lockout will impact our capacity."
Among the most disruptive consequences of the protracted dispute involving the Swedish Dockworkers Union is ACL’s inability to have all its desired cargo worked despite its willingness to remain in port until all cargo has been loaded and offloaded, Abbott said. “Believe it or not, one of the bigger problems that we’ve been having for a while now is being told that we have to cap our liftings. For example, we have 600 containers to load on a ship, but we are told that they can only handle 450 or even less,” Abbott said in an interview on Wednesday. “How can I tell my customer that the port won’t load their containers? No port in history has ever told us that.”
He said too much time gets wasted calling Gothenburg. “Our scheduled day in Gothenburg is Monday. But if we arrive early, we cannot get anyone to work on the weekend. Every other port will give us some flexibility but Gothenburg won’t. So we arrive early and then wait around for our ship to be handled, then depart late because of poor productivity. We have lost an average of 20 hours per call in Gothenburg so far this year. You cannot keep a schedule wasting so much time,” he said.
“Your ship comes in to the port and they don’t work the ship,” he continued. “Or they work the ship and then leave a third of your cargo behind. The ship is late departing the port and it impacts our arrival times in other ports, causing us to miss berth windows, incur overtime costs, incur higher fuel costs to speed up the ship and other consequential costs,” he said.
But though it has served the port for 50 years, it is a somewhat out of the way port that doesn’t necessarily have to be served directly. Therefore, as the dispute continued month after month, ACL began considering alternatives and has a clear idea of what it would do should it make the decision to withdraw.
On the ro-ro side, its parent company, Grimaldi, has an interest in the Swedish port of Wallhamn, an old SeaLand facility, which is up the coast from Gothenburg and which Grimaldi uses for its Euromed ships. “That could be a good gateway port for our ro-ro cargo, feeding the cargo to Antwerp where we use the same terminal as Grimaldi,” Abbott said. “Wallhamn hasn’t had a problem in years, so it is a good option for us.”
For containers, the idea would be to send shipment to mainland European ports like Antwerp via feeder ship, versus sending them via rail to Gothenburg. “A lot of the cargo we’re moving via Gothenburg doesn’t originate in Gothenburg; a lot originates in Stockholm or on the Swedish east coast. Instead of railing it down to Gothenburg like we do today, we can just put it on a feeder ship there and take it down to a continental port. We add the feeder cost but save the rail and truck cost,” he said.
Abbott indicated that as a customer of the port, its needs at Gothenburg are simple, to get its ships in and out of port quickly and to have all its cargo worked and avoid unnecessary delay for itself and its customers.
“We don’t have a financial interest in any port operations in Gothenburg. We’re just a customer of the port and all we want to do is keep our customer’s cargo moving,” Abbott said. “Gothenburg port operations used to be as smooth as silk. It is a very big cost and time deviation to come up to Gothenburg. People used to understand that they had to be better than other European ports to get ships to come. We have been patient for a long time with the ever-increasing problems but our patience is running out.”