Efforts by marine container terminal operators to extract cash from trucking companies in Australia continues unabated with new fee hikes in the range of 73 to 88 percent to use the Vehicle Booking System (VBS).
The new fees came into force early this week. And these new fees are in addition to other cost hikes by marine terminal operators, as previously reported by FreightWaves.
The VBS is a 24/7 online slot booking system so that trucking companies can organise the receival and delivery of ocean shipping containers. Truckers log in and book slots for their vehicles to attend the port.
There are four main marine container ports in Australia and these are in the cities of Sydney, Fremantle, Melbourne and Brisbane. Most of the throughput volume is handled by Patrick Terminals and by DP World Australia. Small volumes are handled by Hutchison Ports and Victorian International Container Terminals. In addition, Flinders Ports is a monopoly operator in Adelaide.
Port by port increases
Patrick Terminals issued notes to industry on May 31, hiking vehicle booking system fees to A$13 a box (A$24.35 if done by the phone) effective July 1. Those fees were, a year ago in June 2018, about A$7.50 a box (A$19 if done by phone). Patrick has other fees that it has hiked too. For example, trucks that turn up at the wrong time were charged A$65 a box in Melbourne last year. From July 1 this year, that fee went up to A$69.55 a box. There are other fees that the terminals charge that have increased too.
It’s not just Patrick, of course. DP World Australia is doing it too.
As of July 1 this year, DP World Australia set its VBS (electronic) booking fee at A$12.95 per slot (A$25 if done over the phone). By way of comparison, on July 1 last year, it was A$6.89. There are other fee increases too.
Neil Chambers, director of the privately owned trade association, Container Transport Alliance Australia (CTAA), observed that “the costs to transport operators of transacting container slots with the two major container stevedores in Australia, DP World and Patrick Terminals, through their Vehicle Booking Systems (VBS), have risen 87.95 percent and 73.33 percent respectively. These price rises come on top of massive increases in recent times in infrastructure charges levied on road and rail transport operators by all of the container stevedores in Australia.”
Adelaide terminal operator Flinders has set its VBS pricing at A$11 per slot. Melbourne terminal operator Victorian International Container Terminal had vehicle booking system fees last year of A$10 per box. Now those fees are A$11.
General economic environment cannot justify hikes
Fee hikes of this size cannot be explained by the general economic environment. Inflation in Australia is currently running at about 1.3 percent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
FreightWaves sought input from Patrick Terminals and DP World Australia when researching this article. Patrick Terminals did not respond and DP World Australia declined to comment. There’s no explanation on their public websites as to why fees are being hiked now.
However, FreightWaves obtained a notice to customers from DP World Australia dated in late November 2017 from Ravi Sheshadri, General Manager Commercial NSW and Queensland, which provides insight.
In that letter Sheshadri writes: “DPWA continues to face one of the most difficult markets in decades, arising from over-capacity in the local stevedoring market, larger ships and consolidation of shipping lines, as well as increased costs. Over the past 10 years property and property-related costs have increased by 84 percent. We’ve seen this trend continue this year and while rent has not been a significant contributor, other site occupancy costs continue to increase significantly, including electricity imposts of 98 percent in the past 12 months.”
Truckers will have to pass on, and increase, costs
Ultimately these costs will flow through to the final consumer as trucking operators simply won’t be able to bear the costs. Trucking companies will likely add on a further amount to cover the cost of administration.
As the CTAA’s Chambers explains, “all of these rising container interface ‘business costs’ need to be passed through to the end customer (freight forwarders and importers/exporters) given the very tight margins in container land transport. Transport operators have their own internal costs to consider, such as dedicated staff involved in the now complex task of slot booking and fleet allocation, and the need to pay… fees ahead of being able to recoup those costs from customers. For these reasons, it is understandable that transport operators add a margin for administration when passing on the costs to customers.”
“We are aghast”
Representatives of trucking companies are not happy.
“We’re just aghast,” says Peter Anderson, CEO of the Victorian Transport Association, which represents trucking companies in the southern state of Victoria.
Although his members can pass on the costs to their customers he complains that numerous fee hikes have repeatedly sent his members to the doors of their own customers to explain why, yet again, their trucking costs are increasing.
“We have to keep going back to customers. How do we do that?” he asks.
He also criticises the marine terminal operators for saying that they are investing in capital expenditure but not, he alleges, then making improvements.
“We’ve yet to see it,” he says, adding, “they are replacing straddles, as they should. But this is an operating expense. There’s no justification.”
“It’s not a free market. We are at the bottom of the food chain and we have no control. The industry is up in arms. And it won’t stop there [with VBS fees]. Next will be a hike to the security levy. Then the water run-off levy and so on. We went nutty at first but we have had to live with it,” he says.
Trucking companies are in the weaker position as the terminal operators can lock trucks out of the terminal. Plus, trucking companies have to go to the terminal of the shipping line’s choice.
And that’s why the VTA has been lobbying the Victorian state government in the form of a body called Freight Victoria.
“Infrastructure is on the agenda,” Anderson tells FreightWaves, saying that he’s working to get the parties around a table for discussions as part of a review committee into productivity at the port of Melbourne. Selection of members for the review committee is now underway.
When challenged by FreightWaves that container terminal operators have no incentive to talk and may refuse to compromise, Anderson responded, “Oh yes, they absolutely will do that. They will. But they’ll realise that the government has its own practices and processes and it will proceed. They’ll have to engage or rules will be imposed on them. The government of Victoria could always legislate for the benefit of the people of Victoria,” he said.