The challenges facing the UK’s biggest container port

The Port of Felixstowe's new Portmaster, Ashley Parker Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The Port of Felixstowe's new Portmaster, Ashley Parker Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

If you gaze out over the water from Felixstowe Port, you might catch sight upon a ship so large, it would make Titanic look measly in comparison.

Freight traffic to and from the Port of Felixstowe Picture: HUTCHISON PORTS UK

Freight traffic to and from the Port of Felixstowe Picture: HUTCHISON PORTS UK - Credit: Archant

The next generation of mega-ships to arrive at the UK’s largest container port of Felixstowe includes the Manchester Maersk, a ship that’s roughly the length of three football pitches and can hold a whopping 20,000 containers.

Felixstore’s portmaster Ashley Parker says the increasing size of the ships is the port’s “biggest challenge” at the moment.

“The first dedicated container ships back in the 1970s were 70 metres long with a draft of 5 or 6 metres, and now they’re 60 metre drafts and 400 metres long. It means less traffic for us because you get more containers on each ship and therefore fewer ships, but as they’re carrying more containers, we need bigger cranes to handle them.”

Two new gantry cranes were delivered to Felixstowe Port this month which can cater to the larger ships as they are able to unload containers stowed at 11-high and 24-wide on deck.

Looking towards the sea, along the line of quays of the Port of Felixstowe Picture: MIKE PAGE

Looking towards the sea, along the line of quays of the Port of Felixstowe Picture: MIKE PAGE - Credit: Archant

They’re also the first such cranes in the UK that can be operated by remote control. The sight of these giant cranes being shipped from where they were made in Shanghai on a ship in their built state was, Mr Parker admits, “very bizarre.” “Two cranes on a ship is not a normal sight!”

The good news is that the newer, bigger ships are designed to be more efficient, which means less emissions for Felixstowe.

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“We’re also under a sulphur mission control area so they’re also low sulphur fuel. We are also quite mindful of the environment - we were monitoring particulates around the port and its decreased so much that there’s now no need to continue to monitor them.

“Shipping is a very green means of transporting goods – much better than planes because although they’re quicker, you can’t move the same amount of cargo.”

The port is bustling with construction activity, as a new 13 hectare container yard is currently being built, reclaiming 3.2 hectares of seabed in the process.

“We’re extending our yard to give us more space to store our boxes. We don’t have the space for any more ships, but we can process containers more efficiently.”

Looking ahead to the future, Mr Parker believes that the ships will keep on getting bigger, and much of his role will be spent liaising with the shipping companies and working out how to develop the port and its quayside, increasing the berth depths and enabling them to handle increasing numbers of container boxes.

“Ultimately, it may be the insurance companies that halt the increasing size of the new-build ships, “ he explained.

“Today one of the new mega-container ships costs $150m. Add the value of 22,000 containers on top of that, and there may come a point when the insurers simply say ‘enough.’”

He also predicts that ports will become increasingly automated, but not completely without human input. “The benefit will be that by removing the human element from port operations, you can increase safety,” he said.

Felixstowe welcomes about 3,000 ships each year and 17 shipping lines operate from the Suffolk port, offering 33 services to and from 700 ports around the world.

While Brexit has been on Mr Parker’s mind of late, he says the vast majority of the container ships they receive come from China, “and that won’t change because of Brexit.”

What it will affect is Felixstowe’s short sea traffic, their roll on-roll off freight ferries that go back and forth to Rotterdam. “Because of Brexit, there will be customs and borderforce paperwork involved in the future - it won’t be seamless anymore,” he explained.

“Because of free trade, its currently very easy to move cargo from one country to another and obviously speed is of the essence. If Theresa May doesn’t get Brexit right, there will be all sorts of blocks and impediments in that. But that’s what we voted for – times have changed.”

Felixstowe Port employs roughly 2,000 people, and because of haulage and agency work, up to 10,000 people are dependent on the port for their livelihood.

“Because so much cargo comes through the port, if we shut down for three days - because we are snowed in, for example, or there’s industrial action, and we can’t get our boxes to where they’re going, in three days, the government convenes Cobra (emergency council).

“It reflects the fact that Felixstowe Port is a real lifeline to the British economy.”

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