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Future Prospects to Sail Maritime ?Trains? Through the Suez Canal

By Harry Valentine 2013-04-03 10:42:00

One of the world’s biggest shipping companies recently announced their intention to sail more of their ships through the Suez Canal, instead of the Panama Canal. There are ongoing developments in international trade that in turn affect international transportation and would increase the amount of maritime tonnage that would sail through the Suez Canal. These developments include the construction of newer and larger ports at Mumbai and Cochin in India and a new super-port at Sri Lanka.

The operation of these ports would compete with the operation of the container port located at the Persian Gulf and serve as a stopover for a large percentage of east-west ship transport. Smaller ships that sail to and from several Far Eastern Asian ports such as Singapore and Hong Kong, may transfer their cargo to larger ships headed to Europe or the American East Coast at super ports located around the Indian sub-continent. The smaller ships may carry cargo to their return voyages as the larger ships sail toward the Suez Canal.

Authorities impose a speed limit on ships that sail through the Suez Canal and levy fines for speeders. As the volume of international trade grows, the volume of ship traffic or tonnage that sails through the canal will increase in the future. There are a variety of possible alternatives by which to increase the number of shipping containers or the tonnage that sails through the canal would include widening and deepening the canal or increasing the size of ‘Suezmax’ ships that sail through. Another alternative would involve technology that allows ships to be coupled into oceanic trains.

When sailing through the canal at reduced speed as compared to ship cruising speed on the open ocean, ship propellers operate at reduced rotational speed and at greatly reduced efficiency. A tugboat that has specifically been designed to sail at Suez Canal speed limits could use a propulsion system that would deliver peak propulsive efficiency while sailing at that speed, especially while towing or pushing a ship. It may be possible for a ‘super-tug’ to simultaneously push one ship while towing a second ship of equivalent size.

The development of such technology would depend on the willingness of Suez Canal authorities to allow coupled maritime trains to sail through the canal, a possible means by which to increase the number of ships and volume of cargo that would sail through the canal. One possible train may involve combinations such as ship-tug-ship-tug-ship, where 2-cooridinated tugs would navigate a train of 3-post ‘Panamax’ size of ships through the canal. Automated navigation technology from companies such as Autonav would assure a maritime ‘train’ of safe passage through the canal, by coordinating the operation of the tugs and the ships.

The low sailing speed required by canal authorities would allow super tugs to use vertical-axis thrust generating units offered by companies such as Voith. It may be possible to develop all-mechanical Swiss drive mechanisms that includes sliding crossheads (http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/op-ed-gearless-mechanical-power-transfer-for-ferries-and-tugs/) to carry power from both ends of a lengthwise mounted engine and drive 2-pairs of counter-rotating vertical-axis propulsion units, located under the tug near both the bow and the stern. Such a propulsion system could generate massive thrust at high efficiency while sailing at relatively low sailing speeds. 

The absence of navigation locks along the Suez Canal offers the advantage of the canal being able to accommodate extended length trains of coupled ships. Along with developing ultra-powerful super tugs able to simultaneously push and pull a pair of ‘post-Panamax’ or ‘Suezmax’ ships through the canal, there may be additional scope to develop a floating coupling that would connect the bow of one ship to the stern of another, while simultaneously reducing water drag at that coupling. A combination of 2-supertugs and a floating coupling unit could sail a train of 4 x ‘post-Panamax’ ships through the Suez Canal.

The scope and sophistication of anti-pirate enforcement in the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Oman would affect the volume of traffic that would sail through the Suez Canal. That enforcement may include the use of small remotely controlled aircraft known as drones. The combination of assured passage for oceanic trains through the Suez Canal along with a secure maritime passage between the Red Sea and Arabian Sea may provide future opportunity to sail coupled oceanic trains from deep-sea ports at Mumbai, Cochin and Sri Lanka to deep seaports located around the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea.

The combination of the willingness of Suez Canal authorities to allow passage for oceanic trains to sail through their canal at competitive prices along with the ability of ship designers to develop workable coupled oceanic trains, could give the Suez Canal a competitive edge over the enlarged Panama Canal in terms of attracting maritime customers. During the northern winter months, the direction of prevailing winds over the Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea would result in lower wave heights as compared to the higher wave heights that in those regions during summer.

A peak demand for consumer goods occurs during the weeks and months that precede the end of each year. During that time, gentler wave conditions occur on the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden, easing the operation of coupled oceanic trains that would sail in those regions. Coupled oceanic trains that through the Suez Canal may be assembled and disassembled near the ports of Suez and Said or at ports located around India and at Sri Lanka. Sailing oceanic trains through the Suez Canal could increase the number of containers and the tonnage that would pass through the canal.

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Harry Valentine can be reached at harrycv@hotmail.com for comments and/or questions. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.