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Treading Water

It’s been a down year generally in the container business, but some ports have bucked the trend.

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Published Nov 1, 2023 12:27 AM by Tom Peters

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2023 edition.)

Predicting the movement of marine container trade in the coming months is anyone’s guess.

The CBRE Group, a U.S. commercial real estate and investment firm, reported that in the first quarter of this year “total container volume at the top 13 North American ports fell by 20 percent year-over-year to 12.3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).” The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) has forecast that “global container volumes will grow by between -0.5 percent and 0.5 percent in 2023, and between 3.0 percent and 4.0 percent in 2024.”

If you were a betting person and looked at actual statistics from individual ports and not at the overall picture, where would you put your money? Some ports are showing a downward trend while others are bucking the slide, like Port Tampa Bay.

Driving Growth

“Our container business is going great and is up 24 percent through the end of June,” says Wade Elliott, Senior Vice President, Marketing & Business Development.

“What’s driving this growth and why we are making investments is because Florida’s economic performance continues to outpace the rest of the country,” he explains. “Continued strong population growth is driving demand for everything from energy products to construction and building materials to consumer goods and perishables.”

Port Tampa Bay, together with its container terminal partner Ports America, continues to invest in capacity expansions. These include three additional cranes scheduled to be operational over the next few months; a new six-lane, high-technology gate system; increased paved storage; a berth extension to be completed in 2026 allowing three large ships to be worked simultaneously; an on-dock, rail-served transload facility planned for 2026, and a future deep-draft project underway to serve Neopanamax vessels.

On the other side of the world, the Port of Nansha, China, located on the western side of the Pearl River Delta region, handled 24.8 million TEUs in 2022 and is approximately four percent ahead of the same period last year, says John Painter, President & CEO, Guangzhou (Nansha) Port America.

The fifth largest port in the world, Nansha has invested $1 billion in a new berth that will accommodate six inland container barges at a time.

In September, the COSCO vessel Tian Le V.42 departed from the Nansha Phase I container terminal in Guangzhou, marking the port’s first regular eastern South America service to Brazil, the fifth newly added shipping service of Guangzhou Port to BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) this year. In addition, COSCO inaugurated a new Mediterranean service, the only Nansha-Algiers (North Africa) service in South China. COSCO also plans to launch a Nansha-Mexico service.

Performance Upgrade

At the end of July, Port Everglades on Florida’s east coast was down approximately 61,000 TEUs compared to the year before. But its rating for container terminal operating performance has soared thanks to aggressive capital investments ($3 billion over the next 20 years).

According to The World Bank, Port Everglades was the 89th-ranked port for operational performance worldwide in 2022, up from its 2021 ranking of 116.

“This is a great example of how we’re committed to growing Port Everglades organically by making infrastructure improvements that support investments by our existing container terminal operators to provide the resources needed for maritime labor to be more efficient,” notes Jonathan Daniels, CEO & Port Director.

The port has built on its success by aggressively pursuing ocean-shipping services with routes from Latin America and the Caribbean.

CMA CGM's new AMERICAS XL service is expected to generate 10,000 container moves annually. It’s the only direct service from the west coast of South America through Chile and Peru to the U.S. East Coast. Other newcomers to the port’s North-South trade are ShipLilly with service to Venezuela and HLS calling Honduras. Another addition is Ocean Network Express’s (ONE) FLX service that will bring refrigerated fruits, vegetables and seafood from Honduras, Colombia and the west coast of South America beginning in October.

Business opportunities at Port Everglades are expanding with the construction of a nearly complete warehouse by Seagis Property Group, and plans are underway by Bridge Industrial to open a distribution center.

The Southport Turning Notch Extension, which will create five more berths for containerized cargo, is close to completion. The final piece will be the installation of three Super Post-Panamax gantry cranes, expected to be delivered in November/December 2023.

Farther south, Port Miami anticipates container growth to 3.3 million TEUs by 2035, based on its 2035 Master Plan. It hit 1.2 million TEUs in 2022, but figures for this year are showing a slight decline. Last November it signaled that it was ready for the big ships with the arrival of the CMA CGM Osiris, a Neopanamax vessel with a capacity of 15,536 TEUs.

In May, ZIM started the new Colibri Xpress premium service through Miami, connecting South America’s west coast with the U.S. East Coast. And in July, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded PortMiami a $5 million grant to complete portions of its Master Plan including the development of an inland cargo center.

Canada Calling

The Port of Montreal handled over 1.7 million TEUs in 2022 but, given the current global economic slowdown, container volumes for the first half of 2023 have decreased by 11 percent, says Guillaume Brossard, Vice President, Development, Marketing & International Relations.

Montreal continues to invest in major infrastructure projects and in August officially opened its new, C$43 million overpass over Notre-Dame Street East in the Viau sector, allowing direct access to the highway network while removing close to 1,500 trucks daily from public roads. The port is also increasing its 100-kilometer rail network by adding six kilometers of new track at a cost of C$63 million.

Montreal is moving forward with the largest project in its history, the Contrecoeur Terminal, which will increase port capacity by 1.15 million TEUs, bringing total container capacity to 3.25 million TEUs. Commissioning is planned for 2027.

Michigan’s Maritime Gateway

While the established ports deal with the ups and downs of the container trade, the Great Lakes Port of Monroe, Michigan (Michigan’s only port on Lake Erie), is developing Michigan’s Maritime Gateway, which includes a container component.

Port officials anticipate that containers will arrive direct from Europe and by feeder service from the East Coast.

The $30-million Gateway project will create a new transportation option for auto manufacturers, battery manufacturers and suppliers to use the Great Lakes and St Lawrence Seaway as a direct water route for the movement of import and export cargo. Construction is expected to start in the second half of this year and be completed in the first half of 2025.

Container throughput capacity has yet to be determined, but Monroe officials say the goal is to develop a liner service focused on containers, breakbulk and ro/ro cargoes. The port will also focus on servicing non-standardized cargoes (flatracks, autos-in-containers and high-value components).

With its two Class One railroads, uncongested facilities, immediate interstate access and more than 600 developable acres, Monroe considers itself an ideal consolidation point for containers and project cargo.

Spanish Eyes

Across the Atlantic, the Port of Valencia, Spain says the decline in container cargo is showing signs of slowing down based on the latest statistics. July figures report a seven percent drop in the number of containers handled and a nine percent drop in tonnage volume, both in line with what is happening in other large European ports but an improvement over the first six months of the year.

Valencia also reports positive signs in its rail traffic. “Rail transport continues to rise, and during the first seven months of this year a total of 153,581 TEUs (+20.63%) entered and left the Valencian docks by rail and 2,066,098 tons were moved, an 18.46% increase,” the port said in a release.

China is Valencia's main trading partner with 318,399 containers, closely followed by the U.S. with 209,270.

Valencia moved into the limelight recently by taking delivery of the world’s first hydrogen-powered reach (container) stacker, developed within the framework of the European H2PORTS project. Developed by Hyster, the stacker has already received its first hydrogen refueling. The fuel-cell powered stacker is expected to offer comparable performance to a diesel reach stacker in terms of capacity, lift and drive speeds.

Lone Star & Palmetto States

The Port of Freeport, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico, is expecting a boost to its future container business. The Velasco Container Terminal will be retrofitted with 688 reefer plugs for refrigerated containers this year and, in the second quarter of 2024, Fresh Del Monte will relocate to the port, says Jason Miura, Director of Business & Economic Development. The addition of Del Monte is expected to double the port’s current container volume.

In May, Port Freeport completed the extension of the Velasco berth, and the two existing Post-Panamax cranes were recently modified and can now transit the entire 1,727 feet of dock. It plans on adding two more Post-Panamax cranes by the first half of 2026.

Final engineering of the port’s new Gate 12 access to the Velasco Terminal is underway with construction expected to begin this year with completion in 2024. Construction of road improvements and a new truck queuing area in Freeport’s expansion area will also happen in 2024.

South Carolina Ports (SC) finished FY 2023 with steady container volumes and stellar activity at its rail-served inland ports, handling nearly 2.6 million TEUs and 1.4 million pier containers. While this was down about 10 percent from FY 2022 when pandemic spending spurred an unprecedented cargo boom, it’s up one percent from FY 2021, a more typical year.

Retail, advanced manufacturing, the automotive and cold storage sectors continue to drive growth at the Port of Charleston. “SC Ports provides reliable, efficient service for companies’ supply chains,” states President & CEO Barbara Melvin. “Port-dependent businesses will continue to invest in South Carolina to gain access to a well-run port with capacity in the booming Southeast market.”

Inland Port Dillon had a record FY 2023, handling 39,143 rail moves, an impressive 50 percent increase from the year prior. Inland Port Greer was down about three percent.

Tom Peters is the magazine's ports columnist. 

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