Case Study 8: Ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, Netherlands and Belgium

Event: Capacity constraints, 2014–2017

In 2020, the Port of Rotterdam handled over 14 million TEUs, while the Port of Antwerp handled 12 million TEUs. Both ports faced recurrent congestion over recent years (Knowler G., 2018). The capacity of these two ports was often challenged by the increasing vessel sizes and related implications for port and inland operations (Knowler G., Ibid). Up to five 20,000 TEUs mega-ships can call simultaneously in Antwerp and Rotterdam, generating massive workload peaks and pressuring container operations.

Causes and impact

Increased vessel sizes and limited hinterland capacity to absorb mega-ships, delays and sudden workload peaks, were the main factors behind the disruption and the congestion at the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. Amplifying factors included: (i) the poor schedule reliability of large vessels; (ii) the limited barge capacity for inland connections; (iii) barge handling capacity was not defined upfront, and instead scheduled in between deep-sea vessels, often undermining coordination and demand visibility; (iv) barge and feeder terminals limited operating times causing bottlenecks out of rush hours; (v) seasonal peaks during the summer; and (vi) ongoing concentration in Rotterdam and Antwerp of most of the traffic moving through the Europe-Far East shipping corridor.

The five-month congestion which occurred in 2014 triggered surcharges and led to carriers diverting their business to other ports. Barges had to wait between 72 hours and 92 hours to process cargoes at both ports (The, 2015).

Response and mitigation measures

Infrastructure adjustments and port upgrades were made to handle barge demand have been steadily monitored, adjusted and finetuned to meet expected demand.

The Port of Rotterdam focused on enhancing both digital cooperation and hinterland connectivity (Sterling T., 2021). Such measures proved highly effective as the port has gained competitiveness despite disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Some examples of physical and digital connectivity concretely improved or employed at the Port of Rotterdam include: (i) data sharing across the containerized supply chain; (ii) enhanced scheduled barge capacity through Nextlogic, making it easier for terminal and barge operators to draw up schedules and be aware of the status of the handling process (Port Technology); (iii) Road network and barge shuttle service to connect terminals within the port area (Waters W., 2018); (iv) cargo bundling services, with barges carrying 150 to 200 containers to shuttle directly between deep-sea port and inland terminals; (v) dedicated barge berths in the port; (vi) fixed barge windows and automation (a new app called Pronto, reduced the waiting time by 20 per cent) (Hochfelder B., 2018); and (vii) effective information systems to support inland barge traffic (waterway inland network of Rhine Ports and Upper Rhine Information system).

Along with similar efforts to promote digitization, Antwerp also opened a new barge terminal in 2019 (Louppova J., 2018), and promoted enhanced barge cargo bundling. Minimum call size criteria for barges to access the deep-sea terminals (30 moves) were also introduced.

Lessons learned and good practice

  • Digitalization (Witschge L., 2019) can promote transparency and data sharing of shipping processes (notifications for pilots, Maritime Declarations of Health, etc.). It can also mitigate hinterland connection capacity constraints and lack of coordination (e.g. waterway inland vessels).
  • Develop a chain performance dashboard to provide insights into the logistics chain and make it easier for participating parties to identify the source of congestion and jointly work towards a solution.
  • Favour upstream locations and side to build on the inland waterway connectivity services, develop dock systems connected to the river via large sea locks, and simultaneously serve large deep-sea vessels.
  • Strengthen cooperation with downstream ports (domestic, coastal or estuarine rivals), and further upstream ports to strengthen logistics cluster and maritime networks.