The established maritime industry in London is closely following the development of the container port of DP World London Gateway, and its strategy to attract traffic from Britain’s biggest port Felixstowe, only 50 miles away. London Gateway is the first new port in the western hemisphere designed to meet the needs of ultra-large container vessels (ULCV’s). Everything about the port’s layout is super-sized, from the depth of water to the height of the cranes. The arrival in 2013 of the five huge ZPMC cranes from Shanghai, weighing in at 2,000 tons each, was a landmark event that was given full coverage by the city’s media.
At a height of 138 meters (453 feet), they are claimed to be the “world’s largest quay cranes,” and would tower over the Super-Post Panamax cranes in Tacoma, Seattle and Vancouver BC that stand around 270 feet high. They are the first in the UK to be able to lift four containers at once – designed to serve the next generation of ULCV’s – potentially bigger than the Maersk triple E’s that are more than 400 meters long and carry 18,000 TEUs stacked up to 23 boxes wide. “The size of the cranes future-proofs the port, allowing London Gateway to handle the next generation of ultra large container ships,” stated Tim Halhead, the port’s operations director.
These huge ships are too big for any port in North America, so are confined to the Asia-Europe run, and they are creating a ripple effect in the UK, Netherlands and Germany to provide ever-bigger port infrastructure. This includes deeper channels, longer berths, larger container yards and more machinery, with a total cost more than $13 billion according to one analyst. DP World (Dubai Ports) inherited the London Gateway site when it took over P&O Ports in 2005, and has invested more than $2 billion to date.
The cranes are just the tip of the iceberg for London Gateway – part of the long-term plan to create a 21st century terminal on the former Shell Haven oil refinery 25 miles from central London. The project began with the dredging of 100 km of estuary in 2010, when 150 WWII bombs were recovered and more than a dozen shipwrecks surveyed.
The entire dock area was reclaimed from the sea using dredge spoils, then the cranes were installed on a new quay wall 2.7 kilometers in length, with foundations that are 150 feet deep. There are also 40 fully-automated stacking cranes, creating Britain’s first fully-automated container-stacking terminal. However, Felixstowe – owned by Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa – has not been idle. It added a $500 million extension in 2011, giving it three berths for ULCVs and raising capacity to about 4.5 million TEU. The port handled more than 40 percent of UK container traffic last year, including the biggest Triple-E Maersk ships.
The first scheduled service to switch to London Gateway’s single operating berth was the MOL Caledon early in November. Caledon is a 58,000-ton container carrier that carries fruit and wine from South Africa, and had previously unloaded in the small port of Tilbury, a few miles upstream. The first shot in the duel with Felixstowe came around Christmas, when a storm in the North Sea forced it to briefly close to shipping. Two feeder ships and Maersk’s 5,500-TEU Nedlloyd Drake, followed by the 8,452-TEU Maersk Seville were diverted to London Gateway, which is protected from rough weather in the North Sea.
In the New Year, another South African service, run by MSC, ordered the MSC Rita to London Gateway. It appears that shipping lines stand to benefit from the fierce competition between these two major ports only 50 miles apart.