Heavylift / Breakbulk
Project business under pressure
The port of Hamburg has seen its conventional breakbulk throughput drop by more than 20% over the past two years. The business community in the northern German city has put together a package of measures aimed at turning around this downward trend, at least in the high-value project cargo segment. As a last resort, the authorities are prepared to enter into new partnerships, to make sure the port does not lose touch with the market leaders in this hotly-contested segment, despite the problems concerning infrastructure.
Growth of 4.4% in container traffic and an even more impressive 7.2% uptick in the handling of bulk cargo – the 2013 throughput figures for the German port of Hamburg are nothing if not respectable. But there is a blot on its clean balance sheet. In conventional breakbulk throughput, the Hanseatic city’s port lost 7.6% of its volume, thus putting its total at just 1.9 million t. In the last two years, this figure has plummeted a full 22%.
The drop cannot only be chalked up to an increasing level of containerisation of certain types of goods. Particularly in the heavylift and project cargo segment, Hamburg has found it increasingly difficult to keep pace with its compatriot port Bremerhaven and other western North Sea ports. The Belgian port of Antwerp alone registers 15 million t of throughput a year in the breakbulk sector, a figure that the port on the river Elbe can only dream of.
A lucrative segment
This realisation is a thorn in the side of Hamburg’s business community. «Value creation in the transhipment of heavylift and oversized breakbulk cargo is many times greater than what is achievable with standard container transhipment. Employment knock-on effects are also highest in conventional breakbulk transhipment, at 6.23 jobs per 1,000 t handled,» concludes a white paper aimed at improving conditions for oversized and heavylift cargo. It was published jointly by the Hamburg chamber of commerce (Handelskammer Hamburg), the port of Hamburg’s business association (Unternehmensverband Hafen Hamburg UVHH), Port of Hamburg Marketing (Hafen Hamburg Marketing HHM) and Hamburg’s road haulage and logistics association (Verband Strassengüterverkehr und Logistik Hamburg VSH). About 18,000 workers in the metropolitan region of Hamburg are dependent on this segment.
In the white paper, the four organisations focus on infrastructure problems that make life particularly difficult for oversized and heavylift cargo forwarders in the Hanseatic city of Hamburg.
Throughout the German road network, key bridges are in a deteriorating condition, and Hamburg is no exception. The result is the downgrading of the load-carrying capacity of affected bridges. Heavylift cargo transports reaching the port by road are forced to cope with significant detours – and in the worst cases may not even be able to reach their intended destinations at all.
«Both the logistics and transport industry, as well as manufacturers of plant components, transformers, presses, turbines and construction equipment, frequently recommend the shipping of oversized components via Antwerp, due to the poor accessibility of the port of Hamburg and delays in getting the necessary permits,» the paper continues.
It calls for improved coordination of construction sites, taking better account of oversized and heavylift transports with regard to infrastructure improvements, a temporary lifting to 44 t of a weight limit beyond which the authorities have to be consulted, and the development of planning processes and the Vemags web platform for approval processes for oversized and heavylift transports. A round table including the bodies UVHH, HHM, VSH, the chamber of commerce and with representatives of Hamburg’s city government has already been established.
Prevent firms from upping sticks
Whether these measures will be sufficient to stop the shift in the project cargo business away from Hamburg is an open question, however. Johann P. Schryver, the chairman of the association of Hamburg freight forwarders (Verein Hamburger Spediteure VHSp), has noticed a shift in this traffic towards western North Sea ports over the past 10–15 years. The container business was simply accorded a higher priority in Hamburg, he says. Even the recently-approved port development plan to 2025 touches only marginally on the issue of oversized and heavylift cargo.
One of Hamburg’s greatest weaknesses in the project cargo field, compared with Antwerp and Rotterdam, is the poor integration of inland barges into the project chain. And this in spite of the fact that along the river Elbe there are numerous capable heavylift shippers that depend on the port. However, as Heiko Loroff, the general director of a group of inland ports on the upper Elbe (Sächsische Binnenhäfen Oberelbe SBO) points out, all of the players involved in the transport chain are holding back investments in terminal superstructure, pending a resolution of a political debate over shipping on the river Elbe.
Inland waterways links are key
Axel Mattern, Port of Hamburg Marketing’s chairman of the executive board, also believes that there is a great potential for the inland waterways. «The current trend sees heavy pieces weighing 100 t or more reaching the port of Hamburg almost exclusively on inland barges,» according to Mattern. This makes it abundantly clear that well-functioning inland waterway links between Hamburg and both the inland ports on the river Elbe as well as the inland canal network are needed to ensure seamless transportation for heavylift and project cargo shipments.
There is a need for action in the port too. The five terminals that are very active in the project cargo business – that is the Buss Hansa Terminal, C. Steinweg, Unikai, Rhenus Midgard and Wallmann & Co – offer mobile cranes in their facilities that can lift 208 t, and which can even handle individual pieces weighing 300 t in tandem operations. Most multipurpose vessels calling at Hamburg have on-board cranes capable of handling 700 t – which is of no use when an inland barge and a maritime vessel are in port at different times. Thus Wallmann & Co, C. Steinweg and Buss are in discussions with HHM concerning a joint investment in a floating crane. One with a 700 t capacity would be ideal, according to Mattern, as it would make handling more flexible and prevent expensive down-time for inland barges.
Cooperation partners to the fore
In the meantime, the SBO has started a cooperative partnership for heavylift and project cargo activities, as well as conventional heavylift and bulk cargo. The SBO’s partner is not Hamburg, however, but the port of Brunsbüttel, which is located in the Elbe delta. Brunsbüttel Ports, the local port operator, is building a multipurpose terminal for heavylift transhipment. Loroff and Frank Schnabel, the head of Brunsbüttel Ports, signed the cooperation agreement in Hamburg – with high-level representatives of the port of Hamburg also at the table. The signal behind their presence is that, despite ongoing construction and infrastructure problems affecting the project business, Hamburg’s port industry wants to keep a foot in the door – if it means cooperating with partners, so be it.