Nearly 40% of inland transportation to and from the port of Antwerp is done by barges, and the port aims to raise this share up to 43% by 2020. However, in the second quarter of 2017, the rapidly growing freight volumes, shortages of dock labour and the ever larger sizes of ocean vessels calling at the port led to peak load on the terminals, with longer waiting times for container barges as a result. The port struggled to resolve the barge congestion. With the support of the terminals, together with the barge operators, shipping companies, shippers, forwarders, NxtPort, CEPA, the Flemish Government, Flemish Waterways, Alfaport-Voka (Chamber of Commerce) and Antwerp Port Authority, a declaration of intent was signed on 6 July 2017 to promote container barge transport in the port. This signing was followed by 40 meetings of workgroups aimed at elaborating a concrete plan of action, which was unveiled yesterday.
The agreements concentrate on three main areas: planning and collaboration; consolidation and digitisation. The following actions are envisaged:
- Planning and collaboration. The terminals commit to provide minimum handling capacity for container barges. The scheduling will be centralized, stricter and supported by the Barge Traffic System (BTS). The three large terminals – PSA, MPET and DP World – are carrying out a large-scale trial to deal with barge scheduling on a port-wide basis, which will simplify and streamline the entire scheduling process for all parties. This new, unique initiative will first be tested in a pilot project starting in September, and if the results are positive it will be continued. Starting from June, it is planned for the barge operators to collaborate in order to streamline their scheduling.
- Consolidation of freight volumes. It has been agreed to increase the minimum barge call size up to 30 containers per call. This volumes consolidation would allow to make the port’s growth more sustainable. A trial period for such larger calls at the terminals will start in October. To help the barge industry in this transition to larger calls, the Flemish government and the Antwerp Port Authority have introduced a temporary package of operational and financial subsidies.
- Digitisation. NxtPort is leading the initiative in this area by developing various new digital applications, which will focus on sharing information. This would increase efficiency and data centralization, thus permitting a more proactive planning and follow-up.
Additionally, other measures for more efficient operation will be examined in the short and medium term. For instance, the terminals will consider a possibility to have dedicated barge capacities. Thus, Antwerp Gateway is to start a new construction project in the summer of 2018.
In order to deal with dock labour shortages, CEPA will make additional efforts to reduce training times for dock workers.
The Port of Antwerp believes the combination of all these measures should give new impetus to container barge transport in the port, and the intensified collaboration between the parties should lead to a greater reliability and efficiency of barge handling.
In Q1 2018, Antwerp recorded a 7.1% rise in its traffic (58,328,678 tonnes) as compared to the same period of 2017. The main driver was container freight, which enjoyed a very strong growth of 10.7% to 2,744,226 TEU (up 10.7%).
Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe, just following Rotterdam. The barge congestion also concerns the port of Rotterdam, where this type of transportation accounts for 45% of the hinterland traffic. Earlier we wrote about the Container Exchange Route, a solution planned by Rotterdam to improve its inland connections.