More boxes on larger but fewer ships at Port Botany

OOCL Italy , a 5,888 TEU vessel docks at the Hutchison Ports terminal, Port Botany, Sydney. Botany experienced a bigger container throughput in 2018 compared to 2017 and it it attracted fewer, but much bigger, ships. Photo: Shutterstock.

A noticeable change in the pattern of trade is underway at Australia’s second biggest box port, Sydney’s Port Botany. Botany handled more boxes in the last calendar year than in 2017  – but those boxes arrived and departed on fewer, although larger, container ships.

There was a 4.7 percent growth in the total volume of all boxes handled at Port Botany in 2018 compared to 2017, analysis of newly released data reveals. This growth figure includes empty, full, import and export boxes. The port handled over 2.65 million 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) boxes last year compared to just over 2.5 million TEU in 2017.

There was a boost in throughput for both export and import boxes. Port Botany handled just over 1.31 million export TEU in 2018,  which is a 4.4 percent increase and represents an extra 50,000 TEU, compared to the 2017 figure of 1.27 million export TEU.

On the import side, Botany handled 63,000 TEU or so more last year than the year before. There were 1.34 million TEU of imported boxes, which was a 5.0 percent increase on the 1.27 million TEU recorded in 2017.

A more nuanced picture

The picture gets a little more nuanced when the full/empty split is considered. Botany handled just under 1.83 million TEU of full boxes (import and export boxes combined). It handled just over 500,000 TEU of full export boxes, which was down 1.6 percent from 2017. It also handled just over 1.3 million TEU of full import boxes, which was up 1.1 percent over the previous year.

Botany handled 1.3 million TEU of export boxes last year, but only 500,000 TEU of export boxes were actually full. Port Botany, like other ports in Australia, experiences an imbalanced trade. In total, Botany handled just over 822,836 TEU of empties (import and export boxes combined) last year compared to 1.83 million TEU of full boxes, which means that, for every 2.2 TEU of full boxes that Port Botany handles, it also handles one empty TEU.

Turning now to ship calls, Port Botany experienced a marked decline in port calls from smaller container vessels and a massive increase in calls by larger vessels. Overall, there were 1,119 box ships that called at Botany in 2018, about 23 fewer or 2.0 percent less, than the year before. However, it was mostly the much smaller ships that stopped calling. Ships with a container-carrying capacity up to 999 TEU made 47 percent fewer calls at Botany. Ships in this size bracket had the biggest decline in the volume of calls. Ships with a container-carrying capacity up to 3,999 TEU (this includes ships up to 999 TEU) made 388 calls at Port Botany last year, down 16 percent on the 2017 figure of 463 ship calls.

Declining volumes of ship calls

Other decliners included ships in the 5,000-5,999 TEU carrying capacity range (340 port calls last year which is 19 fewer, or a 5.3 percent decrease from 2017). Vessels in the 7,000-7,999 TEU container-carrying range were down by 17 percent, but this was only two ships fewer last year compared to the year before. There were 10 ships of this container carrying capacity that called at Port Botany in 2018.

However, there was a small four percent increase in port calls by vessels in the 4,000-4,999 TEU range, up from 248 calls in 2017 to 258 in 2018. However, it was the volume of larger ships that increased dramatically. Vessels in the 6,000-6,999 range generated a 76.3 percent increase in the volume of calls. There were 59 calls by vessels in this container-carrying size in 2017 and 104 in 2018. That’s an extra 45 ships. Meanwhile, in 2017, only one ship in the 8,000-plus TEU size range that called at Botany but, in the last calendar year, 19 did so.

Port Botany does not have an immediate dock/rail connection. That presents some trucking challenges when there are fewer, but larger ships.

Consider, for instance, the arrival of one extra ship of, say, 9,000 TEU. Assuming all those TEU are in fact 40-foot containers, then that’s an extra 4,500 individual containers that have to be lifted off the ship and trucked out of the terminal in one go. The scale of the challenge becomes apparent when it is considered that there were an extra 18 ships potentially carrying up to 9,000 TEU-plus. In a container configuration of 4,500 TEU then that’s potentially an extra 81,000 truck journeys if it is also assumed that one box is carried by one truck i.e. 81,000=[(9,000 / 2) x18].

It’s a pretty simplistic calculation, with many heroic assumptions. For instance, it does not take into account that not all ships would have 9,000 TEU onboard nor that the 18 ships would all arrive at different times. However, it does illustrate the scale of the trucking challenge faced at Port Botany, which is particularly severe for the port as it is located immediately adjacent to an airport and is otherwise encroached upon by Sydney on all sides other than the marine side. And, it should be remembered, metropolitan populations are becoming increasingly intolerant of heavy trucking.

Port Botany and its hinterland

Port Botany is the main container port in the state of New South Wales and its service area (the port’s hinterland) is mainly the greater Sydney area.

According to NSW Ports, the operator of Port Botany, about 80 percent of the containers imported into Port Botany travel to a destination within about 25 miles (40 km) of Botany. About half of the full export boxes originate within or near the city, the operator adds.

Sydney had a population of 4.8 million in the 2016 census. At the time, Australia had a population (which has since increased) of 23.4 million. So the greater Sydney area accounted for about 20.5 percent of the Australian population as the time of the 2016 census.

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Jim Wilson, Australia Correspondent

Sydney-based journalist and photojournalist, Jim Wilson, is the Australia Correspondent for FreightWaves. Since beginning his journalism career in 2000, Jim has primarily worked as a business reporter, editor, and manager for maritime publications in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. He has won several awards for logistics-related journalism and has had photography published in the global maritime press. Jim has also run publications focused on human resources management, workplace health and safety, venture capital, and law. He holds a degree in law and legal practice.