Keep cargo flowing across closed borders: European ports

Hamburg

Ports in Europe want to ensure that the unprecedented shutting of borders across European Union member states to halt the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) does not cut off the essential flow of goods along with the movement of people.

While the extreme measures to shut borders are aimed at people and not cargo, as the barricades come down Brussels-based European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO) has called on the European Commission and member states to give priority to maintaining the transport of cargo across borders and to ensure the goods and materials can be delivered to citizens throughout the EU.

“These are extraordinary and challenging times for everybody, and it is essential that the supply chains, which allow essential goods and materials to move throughout Europe, continue unhindered to the greatest possible extent,” ESPO chairman Eamonn O’Reilly said in a statement Wednesday. 

“Europe’s ports are committed to continuing to support the flow of essential cargoes along with all other supply chain operators in the shipping, distribution, and haulage sectors,” he added.

Borders, shops, bars, and restaurants are now closed across much of Europe, with some areas placed under quarantine, which will have a knock-on impact on any part of the transport chain that requires human interaction, such as customs inspections, handling, or stuffing, according to a March 16 coronavirus update by online data provider Container xChange.

However, the Port of Hamburg was optimistic the EU would institute measures to ensure the movement of goods could continue unimpeded and that the European domestic market would remain supplied.

“These measures are imperative, as there are currently traffic jams at national borders causing delays in the supply chain,” the port said in a coronavirus update Wednesday.

More than 40 percent of Hamburg’s inland container traffic is carried by rail, but as congestion grows at border choke points, the port has linked up with software provider Sixfold to offer a platform using telematics data to provide details on waiting times at the borders. This will enable shippers and forwarders to better monitor their freight and avoid bottlenecks.

Cargo will keep moving

Hamburg terminal operator Hamburger Hafen und Logistik (HHLA) was confident in its ability to withstand any disruption to operations caused by measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. 

“The supply of the population and companies with cargo and goods via the terminal facilities of HHLA is ensured, regardless of the measures in force to protect against the spread of the coronavirus,” said Angela Titzrath, CEO of HHLA.

European ports handle 90 percent of EU international trade and more than a third of goods moving on the intra-Europe networks, according to ESPO secretary general Isabelle Ryckbost. 

“In times of emergency, ports have an essential role in providing citizens, health services, and businesses with the goods and materials they need,” she said.

Europe’s second busiest container port of Antwerp confirmed that the entire port would remain operational. “Under the terms of the Ministerial Decree concerning measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, the port is designated as ‘essential national infrastructure.’ As such, logistics chains must remain assured and the nation kept supplied,” the port said in a statement Wednesday.

Hindering the flow of goods in Europe, especially those goods for export, is the almost complete absence of empty containers, with the huge number of blank sailings leaving carriers unable to ship containers out of China to be repositioned as empties for the return leg. Alphaliner estimated that up to 60 percent of weekly outbound capacity has been withdrawn from the Asia-Europe and trans-Pacific trades since mid-February, as well as from the intra-Asia routes.

Container xChange’s Container Availability Index (CAx), which forecasts the availability of containers in particular ports to allow better planning, shows there is almost no container equipment in Europe. The data shows empty containers at terminals in the European hubs of Rotterdam and Antwerp are at their lowest levels since the index was launched in 2018.

Contact Greg Knowler at greg.knowler@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.