Blog – TEU traffic jam about to arrive, ready to roll?

Right at the time when maritime traffic flows between Asia and Europe were picking up full speed global trade came to a temporary stop. Whether it was a strong draft or a gust of wind the result was a several hundred thousand TEU traffic jam. This weekend the first vessels will arrive in the North Sea Ports. Ports in the Mediterranean like Trieste or Marseille have already seen the arrival of these delayed containers vessels.

This is a blog written by Onno de Jong, transport consultant at Ecorys. 

Onno de Jong

Ready to roll?

A question that keeps a lot of transport and supply chains professionals busy right now is how to deal with this flood of hinterland containers. As said before the timing could not have been worse. The first lockdown period in 2020 affected global supply chains as factories were closed. Over the last months these backlogs had to be cleared and many economies saw a rise in consumer expenditure in household goods as money could not be spent on holidays or going to restaurants. As many of you probably know the constraints on ocean shipping capacity where already an ongoing concern. The on-time performance (+/- 24 hours (!), of vessels reached an all time low last February.

Can the rail industry come to the rescue? Part of this question was already addressed in an excellent article earlier this week. As a thought experiment we used our own intermodal links database to see if it is an viable option to divert ships to other ports to better spread the upcoming peak volumes. We see that the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp serve roughly the same hinterland with their respective rail connections. From Hamburg rail connections reach a slightly different set of destinations.

Figure 1 – Rail connections from the port of Antwerp
Figure 2 – Port of Hamburg rail connections

But could a port like Marseille or Trieste serve as an alternative if shipping lines would be willing to offload containers destined for the Northwest of Europe at different ports? A closer look at the regular connections offered via rail shows that these ports serve a different hinterland. Offloading containers in these ports would still require a lot of trucking to customers across the Alps.

Figure 3 – Hinterland rail connections from the port of Marseille
Figure 4 – Hinterland rail connections from the port of Trieste

This exercise also shows the complementarity between seaports in the north of Europe and those in the Mediterranean basin. Coming back to the main topic of this blog: diverting ships to other ports does not seem that likely. Can rail that still play an extra role? Flexibility will be key, and also a lot of creativity. Most likely containers will not be ready for hinterland transport in a steady flow catered towards a strict timetable necessary in running a good hinterland transport service.

But if one of the readers is thinking about organising an extra service or chartering a full train. Please do so and share your experiences. Then either we can all applaud and show that rail is a flexible and agile modality that saves the day or we can at least see where to improve. Because we all know that disruptions in global trade will keep happening. But at the end of the day I know that the creativity present in the logistics industry will make sure that maybe too late, most likely a bit expensive, goods will arrive successfully at the customer.

Author: Onno de Jong

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