PoM – fiddling while Rome burns

Waiting: VICT's cranes stand ready to welcome larger ships. Credit: Jonathon Waiting: VICT's cranes stand ready to welcome larger ships. Credit: Jonathon
Industry Database

Mike Mundy asks why Melbourne is dragging its heels on embracing larger ships

Is the port of Melbourne “fiddling while Rome burns”, as the old saying goes?

For a while now major shipping lines serving Australia such as CMA CGM/ANL, Maersk and OOCL have been pressing the port of Melbourne to facilitate the access of larger container vessels but with no tangible results as yet. Meanwhile, the port of Brisbane has once again stolen a march on its peer and recently successfully accommodated a call from the 347 metres long, 42 metres wide, 10,308 teu capacity Susan Maersk, opening the door for further regular calls from this larger class of vessel.

Roy Cummins, chief executive of the Port of Brisbane Corporation (PoBC), reports that the port was able to receive the Susan Maersk following two years of studies and optimisation of the port’s channels to accept this type of vessel. This culminated, he explains, in August 2017 with the installation of a new web-based technical solution, the so-called Nonlinear Channel Optimisation Simulator system, known as “NCOS online.”

This is reportedly, “the only vessel under keel clearance (UKC) system in the world to have the same high level of accuracy as a Full Mission Bridge Ship Simulator”, and was the primary tool via which PoBC was able to scale up the class of vessel able to be accepted in its 65 nautical mile channel. Indeed, in itself NCOS is a testament to how UKC systems have progressed since the early systems were deployed around two decades ago. By incorporating forecast and real time environmental data, vessel specifications and transit information, NCOS online allows each vessel to maximise its cargo handling or sailing window while ensuring optimal safety is maintained.

What’s the hold-up?

So, what is the hold-up in Melbourne that is preventing it from accommodating these and even larger vessels, up to 12,500 teu capacity?

Victoria International Container Terminals (VICT), the new Webb Dock-based automated container terminal, can handle vessels of up to 12,500 teu capacity with a length of up to 366 metres as well as the class of vessel below this size which typically is in the order of 11,000 teu with a length of 335 metres, and which would also represent an improvement on the maximum container ship size permitted today.

Today, the maximum size container vessel able to enter the port of Melbourne, subject to the Harbour Master’s discretion, is a maximum of 320 metres in length and 42.9 metres wide for Swanson Dock located upriver. Ironically, however, for Webb Dock, despite its downriver location from Swanson Dock, the maximum permissible size of vessel permitted is just 300 metres in length and 42.9 metres wide. This is more than a little puzzling and particularly so given that over the last two years simulation exercises have been conducted with a positive outcome for Webb Dock for vessels of the Susan Maersk class, with a length of 347 metres and 49 metres width, and also for Swanson Dock, but in this case without success.

Other factors at work

This general lack of action in this critical area by the port of Melbourne – to the severe detriment of cargo shippers in Australian trade – has raised questions as to whether there might be other factors at work delaying formal approvals for Webb Dock. Fingers are being pointed at the inability of various government agencies, including Vic Ports, the Victorian Department of Economic Development and Transport Safety Victoria, to agree between them who is in charge of safety of navigation. This is one factor reportedly delaying the decision.

Behind this, there is also speculation that there are powers at work that want to preserve the status quo, not least the Swanson Dock stevedores who are motivated to protect their respective existing cargo bases.

Whatever the reasons for the lack of action regarding allowing larger vessels into the port of Melbourne it is clear that it is the cargo shipper paying the price as well shipping lines who are frustrated in their efforts to deliver a more efficient and cost-effective service.

Worse still, this has been clear for some time. As far back as mid 2015, John Lines, managing director of ANL, detailed the major problems that had to be addressed in Melbourne to facilitate larger vessel access and the potential consequences if that did not happen in a timely way. “There is,” he said, “limited draft at the heads, the limited swinging basin in the Yarra River as well as air draft restrictions under the Westgate Bridge. The bigger vessels are coming to Australia and all the other major east coast ports are gearing up for them. If Victoria doesn’t then they will go elsewhere and this will put Victoria’s economy at risk.”

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