Transport

Getting ports into gear

The essential role that ports have played in economic life down the ages is obvious to everyone. Ever since the aromas of the spices traded from the Orient, goods have always left their mark. But with globalisation comes ever-increasing volumes of goods, creating major logistics problems. Researchers are looking closely at intermediate ports as a possible solution, but ideas are still at the prototype stage. Why are research and society having such a hard time understanding each other? Capoeira(1) is deciphering past experience to reduce future risks. But time is pressing, the situation is already critical, and could get worse.

The activity of  Europe’s ports is measured in millions of TEUs. By way of example, Rotterdam (NL)  scores 9.3, Antwerp (BE) 6.5 and Algeciras (ES) 3.2. TEU  means “twenty foot equivalent unit” and is a reference unit for measuring  container transport, based on the normal length of containers (a little over 6  metres). © ESPO The activity of Europe’s ports is measured in millions of TEUs. By way of example, Rotterdam (NL) scores 9.3, Antwerp (BE) 6.5 and Algeciras (ES) 3.2. TEU means “twenty foot equivalent unit” and is a reference unit for measuring container transport, based on the normal length of containers (a little over 6 metres). © ESPO
Europe’s number one  port, Rotterdam, handled (in 2005) 9.3  million containers and 396 million tonnes of freight. The dominance of northern  European ports is slowly being eroded by the growing activity of southern  European ports. Trade with the Far East has placed Valencia,  Algeciras and Barcelona  among Europe’s top ten container ports. ©Shutterstock Europe’s number one port, Rotterdam, handled (in 2005) 9.3 million containers and 396 million tonnes of freight. The dominance of northern European ports is slowly being eroded by the growing activity of southern European ports. Trade with the Far East has placed Valencia, Algeciras and Barcelona among Europe’s top ten container ports. ©Shutterstock

The word ‘port’ is derived from the Latin word ‘portus’ (‘port’ or ‘door’), possibly linked to the older Greek word ‘poros’ or ‘passageway’. Since Alexandria, or even the Phoenician traders before them, ports have flourished as trade has expanded. Later, in the French language, the word ‘port’ was to take on a second meaning; that of the maximum load a ship can carry (‘porter’ in French). Today the semantics remain unchanged: 6 billion tonnes of raw materials (bulk cargo) and other products of all kinds crossed the seas in 2005, representing 90% of global goods traffic.

Strategic transport hubs

Underlying the ever-growing demand for maritime transport is the growing internationalisation of economic life. The invention of containers in the late 1950s facilitated transshipment from one form of transport to another. Upon arrival in port, containers are unloaded onto the quayside by gantry cranes and transported onward by road or train. Their standard dimensions and single attachment system make them the “intermodal transport unit” par excellence.

Geographic constraints are not the only reason for using several forms of transport in succession. The lower cost of maritime transport, for example, is leading freight managers to seriously envisage seaborne solutions. This has led ports to adapt, and certain ports have become hubs, that is, platforms that centralise and distribute containers across a country, or even a continent.

Road congestion is also working in favour of intermodal transport. Many businesses and forwarders would like to be able to send cargoes to smaller, city centre ports. Despite this advantageous location, shortage of space generally prevents city ports from generating the traffic needed to pay for the infrastructures and transhipment facilities that are a key factor in competing with road transport.

Stop knot

Existing smaller-sized ports could prove of unrivalled use in carrying goods to the interior of countries with lower ecological impact. But how do we convince fleet owners to use them? They look at smaller ports and ask: how can we shift containers quickly and without congestion on 30-metre wide quays on which dozens of trucks are running around without congestion or accidents?

The Asapp – Automated Shuttle for Augmented Port Performance – project has found an answer, based on a concept dreamed up by Reggiane, an Italian company: a system for unloading containers onto an intermediate aerial platform doubles the available space. Containers are transported on an automatic shuttle, the performance of which is equal to that of the heavy vehicles currently used. Accordingto its designers, the system optimises the uses of gantry cranes (handling 200 containers/hour), and offers a rapid return on investment. The idea and the prototype ought therefore to have seduced port operators and fleet owners. But since the end of the project in 2001, no single platform or shuttle derived from Asapp has appeared on Europe's coasts (2)…

Analysis of troubled waters…

To understand the fate of the research into terminal structures, including Asapp, Capoeira uses a conceptual framework which serves to interpret the strategies of all the players involved: from the initial concept to the proposal, to putting together the consortium, to the project itself and the end-results.

Jean-Louis Deyris, one of the coordinators of the Asapp project, and himself a former land terminal operator, explains where Asapp got bogged down: “the research effectively led to the design of the terminal and the development of a shuttle. The prototype, built at Trieste (IT) was even followed by a second – Asapp I – able to transport three containers simultaneously. But they never went into actual use.”

Capoeira, a project financed entirely by the Commission to the tune of € 0.5 million, is examining the matter until 2008. The first stage of building the future is to examine the earlier projects in order to clarify the reasons that condemned them to failure. For Mr Deyris, who is also involved in Capoeira, where he is examining methodological issues, “the obstacles encountered constitute a complex set of problems which go beyond the mere question of costs. We are using a systemic, empirical cross-sector approach to define the criteria of success or failure. This work is bringing to light the often very diverse factors involved, by looking at the needs of the intervening parties – fleet owners, port operators and others – and the way research is organised inside the European Commission. The market, too, has evolved from the days when manufacturers imposed their products on operators to a system that takes players’ demands into account.

…and a lack of cooperation

The inability of the different parties involved to sit round a table and work together has surfaced as one of the main reasons why initiatives have been stillborn. “Ports are competing to acquire and retain their traffic. Notwithstanding a few very rare projects that bring together seven or eight parties, the rule is clearly that each port closely guards its own know-how. Some even have their own engineering departments. In other highly competitive sectors like aviation or the automotive industry, however, research is conducted jointly by several players, with competition limited to each player’s specific applications,” Mr Deyris continues. On top of this, consultation between social partners in certain countries leaves much to be desired.

This project analysis stage led to a series of recommendations, presented in Paris on 19 October. “The entire port community is eagerly awaiting the results,” Mr Deyris tells us. “This is because, before building forecast scenarios, we took the necessary time to analyse the existing situation.” And this, despite the crying need for progress in Europe’s ports.

Approaching storm

Europe is lagging behind the rest of the world. Its biggest ports have been unable to expand fast enough to absorb the exponential rise in exports from Asia. At Rotterdam in particular, extension work has been blocked by environmental disputes. This has led to chaotic congestion, delayed deliveries, or even ships being turned away owing to lack of berths, inevitably undermining the confidence of partner ports. During the first quarter, 73 % of containers were unloaded behind schedule. And all this despite that fact that, according to the European Sea Port Organisation (ESPO), maritime transport is set to double between 2006 and 2015.

By way of temporary conclusion, Mr Deyris states that: “there are major and very difficult revisions to be made, like building ports on the open sea, with the ensuing new distribution logistics. But neither research nor the market are sufficiently mature today to look to such horizons – even if recently the trend seems to be reversing, with the major ports showing a desire to join current or future projects.”

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. Coordinated Action of Ports for integration Of Efficient Innovations and development of adequate Research, development and innovation Activities
  2. However, trials will soon be carried out in a major European port

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Port life in figures

©Shutterstock ©Shutterstock

Ports are nodal points in the distribution of goods towards internal networks: any hitch here produces a knock-on effect right down the supply chain. Their importance is expressed by the fact that 3.5 billion tonnes of goods pass every year through more than 1000 European ports, that is, 90 % of Europe’s external trade and 43 % of its internal trade. Put end-to-end, the containers used in the process would stretch half way round the world. The Union’s ports are important points of passage, embarking and disembarking over 500 million passengers in 2005, including almost two Europeans in three, according to ESPO’s 2006-2007 annual report. The ports sector also employs 350 000 people, counting services directly linked to port activities.

Finally, as a coastal environment, an average sized European port is home to 250 sea animal species, 70 bird species and 60 types of plants.



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Ports, gateways to “motorways” of the sea

©ESPO ©ESPO

Every year, traffic jams block 10 % of Europe’s road network, and cause the loss of 0.5 % of our GDP. In the EU15 alone, freight transport is expected to increase 70 % between now and 2010. Roads, with their infrastructure costs, their impact on the landscape and their 90% share of total CO2 emissions from the transport sector, have passed saturation point, clogging the wheels of the “transport machine”. A reorganisation is imperative.

This is the objective of the Motorways of the Sea project of DG Environment and Transport, focused on short-distance maritime transport. This form of transport, which is gaining in importance – over 25 % between 1995 and  2002 – is safer, more fluid, more economic in fuel costs and also more competitive in terms of time and cost than most road itineraries, in particular for avoiding natural obstacles like mountain chains. The fruit and vegetables leaving Spain every year on 60 000 trucks bound for Ireland and England could save 600 to 1200 km travelling by sea.

But these perishable products cannot wait a single day on the quayside. Maritime transport needs to be able to intensify its services to absorb the continuous flow of goods arriving by road, rail and water. Developing navigation – 30 % of the FP6 research budgets in the maritime sector – becomes in this way part of a wider perspective, embracing all forms of transport and the way they interconnect. The multimodal approach - intermodal when we speak of containers - is one of the keys to EU policy. It requires us to rethink the entire transport management system, obviously to increase the frequency of maritime services, but also to define genuine logistic chains that channel transport flows towards a limited number of target ports providing access to the motorways of the sea. Four main corridors have already been designated, in the Baltic Sea, in western Europe, in south-east Europe and in south-west Europe.



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