Bigger box ships worsen Japan port jams as terminals struggle to cope

Bigger box ships worsen Japan port jams as terminals struggle to cope

Most berths in Tokyo have lengths of 300–350 m, meaning rearrangements are necessary when ULCCs are calling at the same time. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Bigger container ships deployed on east Asia services are exacerbating congestion at Japanese ports because existing terminals are struggling to cope with the longer vessels, shipping sources said.  

The problem has led carriers to alter port rotations to avoid vessels bunching together, with some box ships being forced to depart earlier than planned to prevent delays and congestion.  

Only one of Tokyo’s existing berths, the Y2 facility with a single 400-m-long (1,312 ft) berth, is capable of handling vessels of more than 14,000 TEU. A consortium that includes Mitsui-Soko and freight forwarder Nippon Express opened the Y2 terminal in April.   

The Oi container terminal has an average berth length of 336 m, while the average berth length at the Aomi container terminal is 314 m.  

As a result, they can handle ships up to around 8,000 TEU. However, the deployment of larger ships on Asia-Europe and trans-Pacific services means ultra-large container carriers (ULCCs) frequently take up two berths.  

“The issue we see is the increasing number of vessels with an overall length of 350 m or more calling at Japan ports,” Nils Meier, Hapag-Lloyd managing director in Japan, told JOC.com. “In Tokyo most berths have lengths of 300–350 m and often a number of rearrangements have to be done when ultra-large container vessels are calling at the same time.” 

The issue has exacerbated a shortage of container storage space at terminals in Tokyo.  

“The new Y2 terminal in Tokyo is helping to relieve the situation as it has a berth length of 400 m and is also providing additional storage space,” Meier said.    

“Hapag-Lloyd is less affected because we only have a few of our own vessels calling Japan and the majority of vessels are provided by our partners,” he added.  

However, Ocean Network Express is often changing the rotation of vessel calls at Tokyo, Yokohama, and Shimizu to avoid delays and bunching vessels together. ONE is also advancing the departure of ships calling at Tokyo and Nagoya by at least a day to avoid delays.   

This has most often affected ships operating Far East Pacific and Japan Straits Malaysia services, data from ONE showed. Vessels impacted in the next few days include the 8,212-TEU ONE Hamburg and 8,084-TEU Conti Conquest, both operating the Far East Pacific 1 service and NYK Diana and Bear Mountain Bridge on the Japan Straits Malaysia services.  

Canceled Summer Olympics reduced cargo pressure

That comes even as congestion at Tokyo has not worsened as much as first feared because the cancelation of the Tokyo Summer Olympics owing to the COVID-19 pandemic reduced pressure on cargo volumes, especially imports.   

“Fortunately, port congestion did not develop as expected so the situation remains tight but manageable,” Meier said. “In general, the tight storage space in Tokyo terminals is the main driver behind the congestion along with the trucker shortage.”  

Data from IHS Markit's port efficiency program highlighted the negative impact larger container ships have on Tokyo's berth productivity.  

Turloch Mooney, IHS Markit associate director, told JOC.com that similar levels of berth productivity were recorded for vessels under 10,000 TEU calling at Tokyo and Yokohama in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. However, for vessels of 10,000 TEU and larger, average berth moves per hour in Tokyo was almost a third lower than Yokohama and Tokyo’s own performance in the smaller vessel size classes in the same period.   

“This isn’t what you would call ‘normal’. Terminals will usually deploy more cranes on larger vessels to mop up bigger workloads, so you will tend to see higher levels of berth productivity on larger vessels, rather than the other way around,” Mooney said. “This is the case with Yokohama, where berth productivity was higher on larger vessel classes. The data suggests Tokyo struggled with larger vessels during the period," Mooney said.

Tokyo is Japan’s busiest gateway, handling 4.5 million TEU in 2019, ranking it 39 among the world’s container ports, while Yokohama handled 3 million TEU.  

Contact Keith Wallis at keithwallis@hotmail.com.