Increasingly high-tech nerve centres are changing the nature of port control. Felicity Landon reports.
‘Don’t forget to look out of the window’ is a popular piece of advice for seafarers who can become so reliant on their high-tech bridge equipment they forget to look out for the obvious.
So how does this translate into marine and operational control centres in the ports world? What are the implications when the complex needs of ships, pilots, tugs, cranes, terminal equipment and heaven knows what else is managed by a chosen few closeted with their screens in a semi-darkened room?
One industry consultant recalls his days at a major container terminal where the supervisors sat in a control tower building on the quay. “You could look down at the quay and when a crane stopped working or there was a queue of trucks, the supervisor would run downstairs, jump into his van and chase after things – all in real time, of course.
“But the quay, inevitably, got longer and longer so that you could no longer see it all from the building. And you can’t build loads of towers. So everything was put into one office, with the ship and yard planners, using CCTV, and a real-time operational system.
“Nowadays, the supervisors could log into the system in their bedrooms 50 miles away and have access to all the information they need, from load list to crane work. They can see where any box is at any time, how the crane is performing, how many minutes behind or ahead of schedule – you don’t need anybody on the quay anymore.”
Go back into the control room tower and look out of the window today – “and you would be lost”, he says.
Room without a view
It’s the same with vessel traffic services (VTS). Steve Gallimore, harbour master at Peel Ports Mersey, says: “It has been a long-held belief that VTS operators need visual observations to supplement radar images. In Liverpool the VTS team have not had a view of the River Mersey for 15 years.”
Peel firmly believes that ports should provide an integrated operational service solution, he says. “That includes marine, cargo and engineering operations, safety and security. Many of these departments have their own control centre within a port environment; however, a single centralised port operations centre could provide step-change benefits and enhance the services provided by each department.”
Peel Ports’s integrated marine control room at the Port of Liverpool, set up five years ago, includes the remote operation of the bridges and locks in the internal dock system supported by CCTV, as well as supporting the Mersey VTS monitoring shipping from Anglesey in the west to the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal. It also includes lock and pilot booking, allocation and regulation, and an emergency response centre.
Liverpool provides the main marine control and emergency response centre; Peel Ports has a single marine management structure that covers all the ports which operates from its head office at Liverpool and also marine control rooms at Manchester and Heysham which deliver different levels of service, dependent upon the statutory harbour authority’s duties and powers and the level of vessel traffic management required, says Mr Gallimore.
“Ideally we would wish to control a single marine offering from one integrated centralised control room. However, on the Manchester Ship Canal we control a 36-mile long water space and five lock flights, together with the management of the canal water levels, into which three main rivers flow, for flood relief purposes. This is supported by a complex and historical control system which would require significant and complex re-engineering. That is not to say it cannot be done, as we firmly believe that marine operations control can be centralised. But certainly the challenges associated with Heysham are fewer.”
While centralised marine control centres across several adjacent ports have been in operation in several UK ports groups for many years, it is unlikely that a centralised marine control centre would suit all ports, says Mr Gallimore. He believes the prospect of large competing ports joining together to produce super-regional or national marine control centres is ‘some way off the mark’.
“However, the requirement for port marine services does need to change in response to the long-term growth in shipping. This is placing greater pressure on existing ports and service infrastructure, just as environmental concerns are making expansion of that infrastructure more challenging.
“We expect a growing trend towards integrated services which will enable ports to demonstrate their ability to optimise port capacity. At the same time, changes to customer expectation will mean that ports will need more complete, timely and accurate information which could be the drivers for integrated, centralised operational control rooms.”
Early this year, Peel Ports will go live with the integration of the Manchester Ship Canal on to its group-wide Vessel Management System, which will enable information to be fed into the central group IT system in Liverpool, bringing all the company’s Mersey ports on to a common marine information platform.
Preparations are already under way for a new set of demands and risk management that will come with the Liverpool2 in-river container terminal, construction of which is due to start shortly.
A Marine Data System has been developed to improve management and communication processes across the Mersey ports. This will significantly benefit the information flow and accurate real-time decision-making process for the port community, says Mr Gallimore. “It will provide the opportunity to bring the arriving and departure process for vessels under the full operational control of Peel Ports, which will include the booking and allocation of all marine services and facilitate the necessary change in Mersey VTS designation to a Traffic Organisation Service.”
In the end, the efficiency of any centralised control centre will depend on the reliability and continuity of communications and on the ability to provide good and unambiguous information, he points out. And that means training. “The staff need the necessary experience to assess fast-moving situations and the ability to apply sound judgment in unexpected circumstances where predefined procedures do not apply.”
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