Rotterdam barge delays persist despite easing measures

Rotterdam barge delays persist despite easing measures

The Port of Rotterdam.

Despite a container consolidation partnership among marine terminals, inland shipping companies, and inland centers, barge operators say there's been little improvement in reducing barge delays during peak times. (Above: The Port of Rotterdam.) Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

The Port of Rotterdam says it is making progress in addressing barge congestion on one of the port’s busy shipping corridors connecting deepsea terminals with inland terminals, but barge operators complain that overall delays at the port have yet to improve.

Barge congestion surcharges remain in place with operators warning their customers to expect current wait times for their containers of as much as 72 hours at Rotterdam and 36 hours at Antwerp.

Rotterdam announced this week that Oosterhout Container Terminal has joined a container consolidation partnership on the West-Brabant corridor that joins Tilburg, Moerdijk, and the Port of Rotterdam.

The partnership was launched in February between marine terminals, inland shipping companies, and inland terminals, and was one of a series of measures introduced by Rotterdam earlier this year in an attempt to find a solution to the long-running problem of congestion at the port as barges, feeder, and shortsea vessels all cluster to serve mega-ships calling at the Maasvlakte 2 deepsea terminals.

Emile Hoogsteden, director of containers, breakbulk, and logistics at the Port of Rotterdam Authority, said, “The more container freight is consolidated for transport to and from the hinterland, the better, as this accelerates efficient handling in the Port of Rotterdam.”

With the addition of the Oosterhout terminal to the consolidation drive, Rotterdam said container volume on the inland corridor has increased by 30 percent and port congestion has been reduced. It is also claiming success in better managing the inland vessel traffic.

“The initial results demonstrate that the West-Brabant corridor has approximately 75 percent fewer deviations from the requested port call agreements at the terminals, compared with the average,” the Rotterdam statement said. “Thirty percent fewer inland vessels arrived at the deep-sea terminals and the volume transported by truck fell by 20 percent compared with the same period last year. Consolidating volumes has doubled the call size, reducing the total port stay by 30 percent. These results demonstrate that consolidating container freight reduces port congestion.”  

Little improvement regarding delays, so far, according to barge operators

However, when asked whether they have seen any improvement in barge delays this year, the response from two large barge operators was resoundingly negative. Although neither company executive was prepared to comment on the record, they were in agreement that little had changed.

“There are no improvements,” said one barge operator. “Last weekend we had delays of 80 hours on average. In the next few weeks the summer holidays begin and the labor problems will become another issue, so unfortunately we do not expect any improvement. It is an infrastructural problem of the port and this will not be solved over a short period.”

Contargo, which operates a large barge network in the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, warned customers to expect waiting times for its barges of 24 to 36 hours in Antwerp and 12 to 72 hours in Rotterdam.

The addition of newly opened deepsea terminals at Rotterdam has increased the complexity of inland barge traffic flows, and the anti-congestion measures introduced by the port authority are aimed at improving planning coordination covering all the deepsea terminals, which is hoped will enable more efficient use of barge handling capacity.

When a mega-ship calls at a port, it creates a whirlwind of feeder, barge, road, and rail activity needed to shift the huge exchange of containers moving on and off the vessel. Rotterdam is the busiest container port in Europe and first port of call for many of the mega-ships operating in Asia-North Europe services, so it is not uncommon to have several mega-ships in port at the same time.

An 18,000-TEU vessel has a container exchange (loading and off-loading) of about 10,000 TEU, and to transport the cargo onward, each ship requires an average of 10 feeder vessels, 19 trains, 1,560 trucks, and 32 barges.

“There is a huge peak and feeder demand because Rotterdam is such a big transhipment port. This puts enormous pressure on the quay with the barges being an important element in the port for inland transportation,” Hoogsteden told JOC.com.

But an intermodal services provider based in the Netherlands told JOC.com he was skeptical about the potential for success of the measures Rotterdam and Antwerp were promoting, one of which is to encourage inland barge companies to cooperate and bundle their volume on transport corridors between the ports and inland terminals.

“Of course, bundling of volume might lead to fewer barges calling at the ports, reducing also the loss of crane production time, but the barges will be larger and need a longer quay occupancy. Bottom line — it probably will help to increase crane utilization and terminal planning to some extent. But it won't effectively tackle the real problem of having not enough handling capacity at peak times,” the intermodal services provider said.

He said the rhythm of delivering-and-collecting containers by barge was largely driven by cargo opening times and detention-demurrage rules, and this made it practically impossible to spread volume over the week. “It is likely that seaside peaks and inland peaks will keep on clashing. But in general we do not notice any structural improvement yet.”

Sharing data between all parties involved in the container supply chain is another way to better plan barge schedules, and Rotterdam is creating a dashboard to give all parties information on the status of barge handling at any time. But the sheer number of players involved makes this process highly complex and difficult to manage.

Thijs van den Heuvel, operations director for Combi Terminal Twente, an inland terminal in the Netherlands that handles 330,000 TEU a year, said about 150,000 different shippers in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany combined, all use Rotterdam and send information about cargo to and from the different shipping lines, forwarders, and terminals. There are also eight deepsea terminals with several operators and 600 barges with 150 different owners.

Contact Greg Knowler at greg.knowler@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.