Container Ports – Que vadis Hamburg?

As a Hamburg resident, I am pleased by recent news about Hamburg port, one of Europe’s three leading container ports. In 2011 it recorded stronger growth in container throughput than both Rotterdam (Europe’s largest) and Antwerp – plus all the other major ports in the North European Range.

Good news indeed, both for local GDP growth and for Hamburg’s competitive position. However, it is fuelling local discussion about the port’s future, which many see as threatened by natural barriers and trends in the logistics and transport sector. Certainly, some concerns are valid; in contrast to other ports, including direct competitors:

  • Hamburg offers limited expansion capacity – being embedded in an urban area and thus confined more or less to its existing borders.
  • In addition, for access you have to undertake a 100 km journey down the Elbe which is both a cost factor (local navigation fees) and limits the vessel’s water depths.

A planned excavation of the riverbed is still in limbo due to “green” concerns and a lack of finance, meaning that larger ships remain dependent on tidal water. Equally importantly, it will be totally inaccessible for the next generation of container vessels. Will this lead to a long term decline of the port?

There are some further factors at play; latest trends in container shipping, such as changing global supply chains and increasing transport costs pushing forwarders to focus on “transport of scale” are driving greater competition between ports.

Do such trends favour ports offering deep sea access? As such will Gdansk in Poland or the brand new deep sea container port of Wilhelmshaven threaten the current leading ports?

Personally, I don’t see alternative locations as a huge threat to Hamburg. As, although I am convinced that a significant share of large scale transport directed to northern Europe will indeed be calling at Wilhelmshaven: Furthermore strong domestic demand in growing Eastern European economies, with their manufacturing base and growth in organised retail, will sustain a logical focus of trade flows directly into this region.

As such selected smaller container ports across Europe will cater for additional demand and supplement the big international hub ports – indeed they may see stronger throughput growth rates in coming years due to “transport of scale” trends.

Nevertheless, the large ports, like Hampburg, provide a service which continues to be unrivalled including volume handling capacity, efficiency of hinterland transport and customs clearing. To guarantee effective lean supply chains, we need the big international gateway ports as well as the smaller destinations catering to a specific need.

As such, I will always be extremely pleased seeing “our” port outperforming its neighbouring competitors – and who would not!