Size matters as Triple E container ships sail for Europe
A fleet of behemoths are on their way to Europe, container ships so large – almost a quarter-mile long, wider than a motorway and taller than a 20-storey office block– that ports are having to undergo radical surgery in order to accommodate them.
The new Triple E ships, which will come into service this summer, will be able to carry 18,000 6.1-metre (20ft) containers, known as TEUs – three times as many as the biggest container ships 15 years ago.
When US businessman Malcolm McLean invented the idea of carrying goods in metal boxes in the 1950s his first vessel, a converted second world war oil tanker the Ideal X, carried just 58 containers.
Today, if all the containers on a Triple E were stacked on top of each other they would touch the stratosphere – 29 miles above the earth. If they were unloaded on to a single train it would need to be 68 miles long. Inside, you could squeeze in 36,000 cars.
Because they're so vast the Triple Es – which stands for economy, energy efficiency and environmentally improved – will be able to move goods more cheaply and efficiently than current ships. But, they will be far too big for most of the world's ports.
No port in North or South America is currently able to take the vessels, nor the Panama canal locks – designed for the last generation of container ships – which are due to open next year. The Triple Es will just about squeeze through the Suez canal, and will ply only the China to Europe route, bringing in goods and returning with cargoes of scrap metal and plastic waste for recycling – but mostly empty.
Only a handful of European ports, including Felixstowe and Southampton in the UK, are equipped to handle the behemoths. Those that cannot are investing hundreds of millions to make sure they can.
The UK is building a £1.5bn port 20 miles east of London's original ports. London Gateway, which is being bankrolled by Dubai's DP World, has just installed the first of 24 138-metre high cranes designed specifically to reach up and across the Triple Es' vast deck of containers.
London Gateway, which is due to open before the end of the year, is Britain's biggest construction project after Crossrail, employing 2,500 workers. The government hopes the port will support 36,000 jobs.
Andrew Bowen, the project's director of engineering, said the port will be able to handle seven Triple Es at the same time.
"There is very limited capacity for the biggest new ships at Felixstowe and Southampton, and it's very important that we as a country have the capacity to handle the largest vessels travelling the world," he said. "If we don't have the capacity to handle them, it would like if we didn't have an airport to handle the A380 [superjumbo planes] and you'd have to go to the continent to change planes.
"It would be the same for containers, and that extra handling would make goods more expensive for British consumers. And cost UK manufacturers more to ship out."
Since 1990 the UK has slid from the world's fifth biggest exporter to its 11th – behind Belgium, Italy and Russia. The UK is ranked 19th in exporters to India, with just 1.5% of the market.
The EU recently signed free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and half a dozen central American countries, it is also in negotiations with China, Canada and Singapore. The result could add about €275bn (£237bn) to Europe's economy – a boost equal to another Austria joining the EU.
As well as triggering the construction of new ports, growing freight traffic is also causing the reshaping of some the world's most historic ports.
Napoleon Bonaparte first recognised Antwerp's strategic position 80 miles inland in 1811 when he ordered the construction of the Belgian city's first port. Antwerp, which boasts inland waterway and rail-links across Europe, has been at the centre of global trade ever since.
The city has Europe's second biggest port, but is at risk of falling behind Dutch rival Rotterdam as most of Antwerp docks are unable to accept the last generation of container ships, let alone the Triple Es.
The Belgians, however, have a solution. They are digging a very big hole – 1km long by 70 metres wide by 18 metres deep.
Among the excavated earth – enough to fill Wembley stadium eight times over – workers found the preserved remains of a prehistoric whale. Palaeontologist and archaeologists now work alongside construction workers for two days a week.
In 2016, after 53 months of construction, the will become the world's largest lock, and it will enable the biggest ships to enter into all of Antwerp's docks. The €340m construction project is central to the EU's Transport 2050 plan to cope with increasing trade to and from Europe.
Philippe Maystadt, president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), which is financing half of the money, said the lock "will benefit not only the port of Antwerp and Flanders but also Europe".
Some fear all the investment pumped into London Gateway, Antwerp and other ports could have a limited shelf life if ships continue to grow.
Maersk Line – a Danish shipping firm that has ordered 20 Triple Es from South Korean shipbuilder Daewoo – believes the vessels will be the biggest on the seas for some years to come. Maersk is the world's biggest shipping company with a fleet of more than 500 vessels.
Soren Toft, its vice-president of operations, said: "This is not about adding big ships because we like them, this is about adding capacity for our customers.
"Parts of the world can't accommodate these [triple Es], but we believe these are the right and efficient ships for the Asia to Europe route."
But David Tozer, global manager for container ships at Lloyd's Register Group, warned that even bigger – 25,000-container capable ships – are perfectly feasible. "We've gone from a maximum of 5,000 containers in 1998 to 18,000 now. The technology is there to carry on getting bigger and bigger. It is absolutely massive business – almost everything that can be carried is carried in a container. And it's all about economies of scale."
The next generation of ships, he reckons, may be too big to fit through the Strait of Malacca between the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They may then have to take the long route from China to Europe – possibly all the way round Australia.
Source: www.guardian.co.uk; Rupert Neate