Felixstowe is worst performer among key ports

Britain’s biggest container terminal — Felixstowe — is the worst-performing port among key competitors in Europe and Asia, according to new data, raising fresh questions about its claim to be the “port of Britain”.

Figures from information provider IHS Markit on port efficiency for the first nine months of the year showed the Suffolk container terminal lagging far behind European rivals including Rotterdam, Hamburg and Bremerhaven.

So poor is the performance at UK ports and Felixstowe in particular — which markets itself as the “port of Britain” and is owned by Hong Kong’s CK Hutchison — that shipping companies have begun imposing hefty surcharges on dispatches to the country, citing congestion.

The data from IHS Markit for the first three-quarters of 2020 showed that a container ship spent more than 32 hours on average unloading at Felixstowe, compared with 24 hours for major ports in Asia and northern Europe.

Dockside cranes at Felixstowe managed to shift less than 20 containers each hour, compared with more than 27 in Antwerp and Bremerhaven and 25 in Qingdao and Yangshan in China.

The data appear to back up complaints about delays at Felixstowe from users of the port — which handles 40 per cent of British container traffic — and come after trade groups in October called on the government to intervene. 

Retailers are warning that problems at Felixstowe risk hitting Christmas deliveries. The boss of one small publisher said all of its books for the Christmas season were currently stuck on a ship awaiting entry to the port, adding the business was “really worried” about losing all the orders.

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Felixstowe’s operations have been put under further pressure by the coronavirus crisis: the port is reportedly dealing with 11,000 containers of personal protective equipment for health workers.

Chart showing that Felixstowe lags behind other ports. Minutes per container move, call size 500 to 2,000 moves (Jan-Sep 2020)

Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association, a trade association, said the IHS Markit data concurred with anecdotal evidence from members who had repeatedly flagged issues about inefficient operations at Felixstowe.

“We remain surprised that the government has shown little interest in the issue, given the port’s role within the UK’s international supply chains and its promotion as the ‘port of Britain’,” he added.

Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, another trade body, said that even allowing for general congestion at ports globally caused by Covid-19, there were “serious problems” at Felixstowe.

“It is the premier container port for the country and it has fallen into a monopolistic, moribund place where it focuses on its own interests, not those of its stakeholders,” he added.

The government has so far resisted intervention at Felixstowe, assessing it to be a “commercial matter”, but Whitehall officials have indicated that the Department for Transport is monitoring the situation.

Industry experts said congestion at British ports was driving up the price of shipping goods to the UK, as transport companies sought to both recoup costs from delays with berthing vessels and incentivise customers to use more efficient rivals in continental Europe. 

One notice to industry issued last week by Hapag-Lloyd, the German shipping company, said that a $175 “congestion surcharge” would apply from November 15 on Far East to UK routes, citing “infrastructure constraints” at British ports.

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George Griffiths of S&P Global Platts, independent market analysts, said that even before surcharges were applied, average fees to ship a container to the UK from Asia were $400 to $500 more than those for northern Europe. Including the surcharges, moving a container to a UK port could be up to $800 more expensive than to a northern European rival. 

Mr Griffiths added shipping companies’ vessels were spending longer in Felixstowe than they would like. “The result is additional prices to the UK, since you have faster turnround times in Hamburg or Bremerhaven,” he said.

Chart showing ships spend longer than average at Felixstowe port, average hours vessel spends in port, Jan to Sep 2020

Turloch Mooney of IHS Markit said that European ports including Rotterdam, Hamburg and Bremerhaven were competing fiercely against each other for business, driving efficiencies not seen in the UK. 

Users of Felixstowe who have complained about delays blame the problems on chronic staff shortages at the port and what one called a “penny-pinching” approach by management.

Hutchison Ports, a subsidiary of CK Hutchison, which owns Felixstowe, recently appointed Chris Lewis as its chief executive.

Felixstowe has consistently rejected claims by users that it is short-staffed and under-resourced.

The port has said it is at present recruiting 104 additional equipment drivers to speed up operations and that more than 90 per cent of imported containers are released by customs and available for collection immediately after unloading.

Mr Lewis said Felixstowe was also under pressure owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and high levels of import traffic due to Brexit.

“The imbalance in UK trade and Brexit stockpiling exacerbate current operational challenges and we are working with our customers and stakeholders to get through the current congestion,” he added.

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