Rotterdam, Antwerp barge delays signal surcharges ahead

Rotterdam, Antwerp barge delays signal surcharges ahead

Inland barge transport is a crucial part of services offered by the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, but increasing volume and fierce competition among barge operators are contributing to bottlenecks and delays. Photo credit: The port of Rotterdam.

There is no sign of the barge handling delays easing at the hub ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, and shippers already being hit with regular detention and demurrage fees can expect congestion surcharges to increase.

Lengthy delays in the collection of import containers or delivery of export boxes to the deepsea terminals at Europe’s two busiest container ports are not improving, and barge operators are feeling the financial pressure. Handling surcharges have been in place for more than 18 months, ranging from 17 to 25 euros per TEU, and raising the surcharges is now on the cards.

A barge operator told JOC.com that he has been experiencing delays of up to 100 hours in picking up or dropping off containers at the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. While some delays at Antwerp last week could be attributed to the clearing of containers affected by Belgium’s national strike on Feb. 13, he believed the problem was worsening.

“I think it is only a question of time before we will have to increase the congestion surcharges to minimize the financial problems resulting from those delays,” the barge operator told JOC.com. He preferred not to be identified, saying the ports were sensitive about the congestion.

Multimodal transport provider Barge Terminal Born (BTB) — Born is an inland Dutch port on the Juliana Canal — told customers in an advisory earlier in February that waiting times at deepsea terminals in Antwerp and Rotterdam were varying between 24 and 96 hours.

“As the terminals are delaying our barges we don’t accept any costs resulting from this,” BTB wrote in its advisory. “The overall situation continues to be unsatisfactory and has a negative impact on the costs of inland waterway transport. Therefore, we are forced to continue applying a congestion surcharge. The handling problems in the ports lead to high costs for us and this surcharge only partly covers these extra costs.”

Intermodal transport service provider Contargo has also issued regular customer advisories that show the waiting times for barges at Rotterdam and Antwerp have seldom fallen below 24 hours this year. A Feb. 18 advisory said average waiting times to handle the company’s barges was 32 hours at Rotterdam and 29 hours at Antwerp.

The transport manager of a European shipper importing products from Asia told JOC.com that the delays were adding to his transport costs.

“In my contracts I don’t pay the surcharges, but I am suffering from additional demurrage and detention costs as the free time is eaten up in the port, which hurts my operations,” he said.

Magnifying the congestion problems is the container volume flowing into Europe that continues to grow. In 2018, Rotterdam’s throughput increased 5.7 percent over that of 2017 to 14.5 million TEU, while Antwerp handled 11.1 million TEU, an increase of 6.2 percent year over year.

Both ports have a wide network of waterways that enable containers to be moved inland at a lower cost than the road or rail alternatives. About 25 percent of the containers arriving in each port are transported from the deepsea terminals to inland terminals by barge, but the rising volume and increasing size of vessels being deployed by carriers on the Asia-North Europe trade is placing a mounting strain on the intermodal system.

During peak periods of the week, there can be up to five mega-ships alongside at Rotterdam and Antwerp at any one time. Each mega-ship can have a call size of up to 10,000 TEU, and the intermodal activity required to drop off and collect containers from the mega-ships is enormous. According to the port of Antwerp, one mega-ship call generates 38 barges, 10 feeder ships, 1,937 trucks, and six trains.

An intermodal services provider based in the Netherlands told JOC.com that 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,” he said.

Rotterdam and Antwerp are trying to address the persistent congestion that routinely delays cargo, but it is a difficult problem to solve and one for which there is no single solution. The ports have created dedicated barge berths, bundling of cargo on larger barges to reduce the number of vessels, better scheduled barge calls to deliver or collect cargo, collaboration across all parties in the container supply chain, and greater sharing of data by all parties.

But the intermodal services provider 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.

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