If current infrastructure is not upgraded to accommodate vessels in excess of 10,000 TEUs, the Port of Melbourne could be overtaken by other Australian ports or carriers could deploy fewer services to the country as a whole, according to industry experts.
The Port of Melbourne cannot handle larger ships due to low bridge clearance and shallow river depths
Industry leaders say that the larger containerships entering global trade routes will not be able to call Australian ports due to infrastructure challenges, according to Australian newspaper The Courier.
According to experts, container ships in excess of 10,000 TEUs cannot safely pass beneath the West Gate Bridge, which gives vessels only 50.1 meter clearance at high tide, nor enter the Yarra River channel to reach the Port of Melbourne. Industry groups have blamed the government for failing to upgrade critical infrastructure to allow for larger ships to enter the port, citing negative consequences for the economy, according to the report.
The Courier reported that the Port of Melbourne handled 33 percent of Australia’s container movements in 2016 to 2017, down from 36 percent the year before, while Sydney’s Port Botany has become the “chief destination” for container trade, handling 34 percent of overall volumes, according to a report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. While the report did not attribute Melbourne’s declining market share to a lack of ships, it did say that “the Port of Melbourne is the port most likely to limit the size of ships visiting Australia.”
According to ocean carrier schedule and capacity database BlueWater Reporting, there are 31 services that call Melbourne, 22 of which are container services. There are no alliance services that call the port, but major carriers including Maersk Line, MSC, COSCO, Hapag-Lloyd and CMA CGM call Melbourne on several standalone or co-operated regional routes. The port of Sydney, by comparison, is called by 24 services, 23 of which are container-only and operated by the same large carriers.
Neil Chambers, director of the Container Transport Alliance Australia, says shipping lines are beginning to use larger ships to reduce transport costs and Melbourne risks losing trade to Sydney and Brisbane in coming years, as it is “constraining the rest of Australia,” according to The Courier’s report. However, the government’s official take on the port – as stated by the independent statutory Infrastructure Victoria in May – is that it will retain its dominant position as the hub for Victoria’s container trade for at least another 40 years despite its obvious geographical disadvantages.
But Rod Nairn, the chief executive of industry organization Shipping Australia, said the infrastructure adviser had failed to account for the fact that ships are getting bigger.
“Melbourne is the only east coast port that can’t accommodate the ships that some of the major shipping companies want to bring now … let alone in 30 or 40 years,” said Nairn in a recent industry newsletter. “The risk is that shipping lines may consider bypassing Melbourne for Adelaide or Sydney and use rail, or a smaller ship feeder service (possibly from New Zealand to reduce trans-shipment costs) to make the connection. This would ultimately cost the Victorian consumer, the Port of Melbourne and the state economy.”
The government is currently working on a freight infrastructure plan slated for completion and publishing early next year.
“Transport for Victoria is working with industry leaders to develop a comprehensive new freight strategy which will inform government policy and investment,” a spokesman told The Courier. “As part of this plan, we will respond to critical questions about future port capacity and the recommendations made by Infrastructure Victoria.”