The European supply chain in 2018 continued its struggle to handle increasing container volumes coming in through its hub ports on mega-ships.

The increased volumes ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a siloed intermodal system.

More than 15 percent of ships in service and 41.3 percent of the order book are ships of 14,000 TEU and above that can only be deployed on the Asia-Europe routes.​ These mega-ship calls tend to congregate on specific days of the week, with huge exchanges of containers and intermodal traffic. ​

A quarter of the 25 million TEUs handled every year by Rotterdam and Antwerp use the inland waterways to and from the deep-sea terminals. An exchange of 7000- to 8000-TEU moves, a regular call size for the large vessels, will need 10 feeder ships, six trains, almost 2000 trucks, and 38 barges. Because of the alliance schedules, there can be as many as five mega-ships calling at terminals in Rotterdam or Antwerp at the same time. How to get the containers from the deep sea terminals to inland destinations is becoming a growing problem.

“Productivity gains are not keeping pace with increased vessel and consignment sizes,” said Dean Davison, technical director, maritime, for the engineering firm WSP. “The relative position has actually gone backwards. All container ports and terminals have to keep improving, and they’re under pressure to do so.”

Data sharing has been identified as one of the key factors missing in the system. In the barge sector alone there are hundreds of barge owners that operate in Rotterdam and Antwerp, bouncing from terminal to terminal to pick up a couple of boxes here, a couple there, adding to the chronic bottlenecks at busy times. They are all highly competitive and have no inclination to share data.

To address this critical area, Rotterdam has introduced Nextlogic to better schedule barge calls which, in collaboration with the market, will develop systems and processes, giving terminals, empty depots, and barge operators a neutral and integrated planning tool. Bundling of cargo will see barges carrying 150 to 200 containers shuttling directly between deep sea port and inland terminals instead of clogging traffic collecting one or two boxes.

For its part, Antwerp’s deep sea terminals will not handle barges with fewer than 30 moves in a trial period that began in October. The idea is to set up consolidation centres away from the port at inland terminals, and the Port of Antwerp has pledged to offer financial support at the inland terminals where that consolidation takes place.

It is too soon to say whether the port plans will solve the mega-ship volume issues, but not all users of the container terminals are convinced that the measures introduced will work. Hans Buytendijk, managing director of barge operator Neska Container Line, said the ability of deep sea terminals to service dedicated barges in fixed windows was limited.

“There is still not enough capacity in the port to service all the inland navigation barges,” he said. “We all come together in the peaks and they are driven by the rhythm of the sea-going vessels. We have to bring containers to the vessels or collect them from the vessels. If they shift a schedule, we are shooting at a moving target.”

There are also fears that new ways of operating will come with new costs for shippers. “To avoid barge congestion, I can only switch terminals or switch ports, but with the big ships, my port options are limited because the vessels have to call at the hubs,” said Marco van der Schans, head of transport management at METRO Sourcing International. “I just want to cut my lead time, but every time I need to plan, I need to pay.”