A potential new shipping route may open up the Arctic region for faster transit times and overall transportation savings for carriers operating between Asia and Europe.
However, some shippers have reservations about the new route and what the potential benefits may be.
The reaction comes as Maersk prepares to launch the Northern Sea route with the Venta Maersk on September 1, a new Baltic feeder vessel, from the Russian port of Vladivostok with calls at Vostochny, Busan, Bremerhaven, and St. Petersburg.
The Northern Sea Route has opened up due to the advanced melting of Arctic ice; summer temperatures in the Arctic Circle have been unusually high in recent years.
The total journey is expected to take approximately one month, according to a spokesperson from Maersk. A permit from Russian authorities is necessary for ships to sail this route, as reported by Japan Times.
However, reliability is a major concern for shippers, not just cost savings. “Shippers are concerned about whether the weather conditions of the Arctic could pose reliability issues,” said Sunny Ho, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council.
Shippers welcome more choices, Ho continued, but it’s unclear if other carriers will follow Maersk’s trial run. “I’m not sure if some shippers would be willing to pay a premium for shorter transit.”
The maiden voyage is designed to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data, according to Maersk. “Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes. Today, the passage is only feasible for around three months a year, which may change with time. We also must consider that ice-classed vessels are required to make the passage, which means an additional investment,” according to Maersk’s spokesperson.
The Northern Sea Route is seen as a possible alternative to the Suez Canal in Asian-European trade, and it could potentially be a huge time-saver. One estimate for a route between Shanghai and Rotterdam using the polar route was 1-2 weeks or even potentially one-third less transfer time, according to an online interview with Richard Milne, the Nordic and Baltic correspondent for Financial Times.
The Venta Maersk will be carrying a considerably smaller load compared to what Maersk ships usually carry. Milne says the 20-foot vessel will carry approximately 3600 containers.
This first test run will contain a variety of goods, including electronics, minerals, and fish.. Designed specifically to operate in cold waters, which is of particular concern for this route, the Venta Maersk can sustain -25 degrees Celsius and has 600 reefer plugs, according Maersk.
This trial will be using ultra-low sulphur fuel, and the 26-member crew have participated in special training to navigate the ice and handle the cold temperatures. “In addition, we will have Russian ice pilots on board during the entire transit for navigation safety, since our crew are naturally not experienced in the area,” Maersk’s spokesperson said.