Belgium is a small country, but it has always been a prominent maritime nation, thanks to its ports. Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, Zeebrugge and Ostend form the country's port system along what is a very short coastline, causing some to question whether one port - or at most two ports - would suffice its needs. But such simple reasoning fails to take into account the vital role Belgium plays as a shipping gateway for exchanges with the Benelux countries, Central Europe and France.
Belgium's largest port, Antwerp, was for years regarded as France's leading merchant port, with huge tonnages of French cargo passing through its facilities every year. "Since France reformed its dock labour system in 1992, Antwerp's prominence as a port for French trade has decreased, but significant volumes continue to be shipped every year by French exporters, at the expense of the French ports," explained the logistics manager of a major exporter of chemical products. Antwerp's influence in France goes as far south as Lyon.
The influence of Antwerp is equally important in Benelux and in Central Europe, for which it acts as a major distribution centre through extremely good waterway and railway links to the European hinterland. "Much of the port's success today is attributable to this role, enabling it to generally perform better than other ports in periods of crisis," a local agent told Fairplay. Last year, Antwerp set a new record in terms of maritime traffic: handling more than 130 M tonnes of cargo, 12 percent up on 1999.
Historically, Antwerp has always been an excellent break-bulk port and last year handled 68.7 M tonnes of general cargoes. Contrary to most ports where containerisation is absorbing ever larger volumes of cargoes, Antwerp saw general cargo traffic grow by 14 per cent last year. Star performers in this sector were sugar and steel, registering growth of 59 per cent and 30 per cent respectively and wheat flour throughput up a quarter.
Container traffic aggregated 45.5 M tonnes and represented nearly 4.1 M TEU. Remarkably, Antwerp has doubled its container traffic in only seven years. Clearly, the dynamism of the port coupled with the improvement of the nautical access on the River Scheldt for ships of 5,000 to 6,000 capacity has contributed to this success.
However, warned a port official: "We have become victim of our own success and are facing capacity problems, especially as far as container traffic is concerned." Because its riverside Europe and Noordzee container terminals are operating close to the full capacity and the old Delwaide and Churchill terminals are prisoners of the locks, Antwerp has had to seek new capacity elsewhere to meet traffic growth. In 1999, construction began on a new container complex on the left bank. This facility, the Deurganck dock, was initially expected to start operations in 2002, but disputes surrounding the future of a neighbouring village, Doel, led to the suspension of work. Only the recent intervention by the Flemish government is expected to result in a resumption of construction by the end of 2001.
On this basis, the Deurganck dock should open in 2004, boasting four large container terminals with an initial capacity of 1.5 M per year. Three terminals have already been allocated for dedicated or private use: one quay will be given to Antwerp's largest client, Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Co., another quay will be used by the companies of the CP Ships group, while a third terminal will be operated by P & O Ports. The entire project should be operational by the year 2005, occupying 255 ha and offering 5.3 km of berths, large enough to handle 5.8 M TEU a year, says a port spokesman.
Over the past two years, P & O Ports has taken a major share of the port's traffic, by taking over the container and multi-purpose terminals of Katoen Natie/Seaport and Antwerp Combined Terminals/Maritime Terminals. This year, P & O Ports is expected to handle 770,000 TEU and 3.7 M tonnes of breakbulk cargoes in the port.
Major changes have simultaneously taken place in the traditional stevedoring sector. The port's two largest stevedoring companies, Hessenatie - controlled by the CMB group - and Noord Natie decided to merge to form one of Europe's largest stevedoring companies, Hesse Noord Natie (HNN). In March, added stimulus was given with the signature of a sale agreement between HNN and Singapore's PSA Corp. giving the Asian group a 51 per cent controlling stake in HNN. The rest of the stock is expected to remain in Belgian hands and by November, the breakdown of the stakes held by the minority shareholders should be known. A likely scenario would be to see CMB keeping 20 per cent of the stock, Noord Natie around nine per cent, the Belgian Railways would retain between six and 20 per cent, and, in a surprising move, the Flemish government could take up to ten per cent. Through HNN, PSA Corp. will operate 22 terminals between Antwerp and Zeebrugge, including six container facilities handling a total of 3.8 M TEU per year.
In Zeebrugge, maritime traffic also did well last year, especially in the ro-ro sector, the port's speciality. And container traffic, while quite significant with a 965,000 TEU throughput, could have been even better without the loss of the South American services of Hamburg Süd/Alianca/Transroll/CMA-CGM and LLoyd Triestino's service to China. The port is however confident of achieving 1 M TEU this year. In 2000, Zeebrugge completed the extension of its OCHZ facility, while the future of the once promising - but now almost unused - Flanders Container Terminal (FCT) is presently under consideration.
In Ghent, 2000 was also a reasonable year, with throughput exceeding 24 M tonnes. Mainly a bulk and ro-ro port, Ghent continued to occupy a prominent position in the steel and car sector for its large clients, Sidmar, Volvo and Honda.
But the real success story is Ostend. It has virtually risen from the ashes after a crisis following the liquidation of its main client, Regie des Transports Maritimes, which used to operate ferry services to Dover. Within the last two years Ostend has gained four new ferry and freight services: Ferryways, initially launched by Belgian investors, serving Ipswich; Trans Europe Shipping Lines, serving Ramsgate; Sammarina, a Romanian venture, serving Sheerness; and Hoverspeed, serving Dover. The port has also gained its first container service thanks to CP Logistics, which has started a twice-weekly service to Antwerp and Rotterdam with a 2000 TEU vessel.
Recently, one of the world's leading container carriers, MSC, became involved in Ferryways by taking a stake in the company and buying its two chartered ro-ros, the 41-trailer Thomas Wehr and Gabriele Wehr - and renaming them Anglian Way and Flanders Way respectively. Meanwhile TSL, which until recently only carried freight, is now accepting passengers. "Slowly but surely, Ostend is again becoming a major Channel Ferry port, a great come-back for the local shipping community, which was convinced of its demise after the disappearance of RTM a few years ago," a local ship agent observed.
Source: Fairplay, October 11, 2001