An efficient WA container terminal?

RAY FORMA is a long-term North Fremantle resident and an economics and geology graduate. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he tries to bring some clarity to the debate over the murky future of Fremantle port.

HAVE you had enough of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union protecting cushy jobs, and NIMBYs complaining about trucks upsetting their motoring?

The following information may help you make up your mind about a replacement container terminal servicing southern WA.

Southern WA’s container terminal, situated in the Fremantle inner harbour, is past its use-by date.

In 2016 the New Panama Canal opened and the first of the Neo-Panamax container ships passed through.

The expanded canal now accommodates ships up to 366m long, 49m wide and 15.2m deep.

In August 2015 the New Suez Canal opened, allowing passage of ships of unlimited length, and 50m wide and 20.1m deep.

Carbon dioxide

Shipowners such as the familiar Maersk and China Shipping Lines are currently building ships of up to 400m long and 16m deep, because they use 37 per cent to 50 per cent less fuel per container carried; significantly reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions and making trade even cheaper.

Not all these new vessels can transit the New Panama Canal, with owners mainly using them on the Europe-Asia route.

Demand for Old-Panamax ships is plummeting: Owners are selling smaller ships only seven years old for scrap.

The future is fast bearing down on us and we urgently need to prepare or watch southern WA become an economic backwater.

Indonesia is on track to become our world’s fifth-biggest economy in 11 years time.

The new big ships will ply routes close to Fremantle as they service Indonesia, and it would greatly increase the costs of our imports and exports if they have to be transhipped to smaller vessels in a Singaporean or Indonesian terminal.

Fremantle Inner Harbour, and its approaches, is dredged to 14.7m. However, it cannot take ships of that depth because if such a ship rolls, then parts will possibly contact the bottom.

The Inner Harbour is 429m wide. It would be a brave captain who would attempt to turn a 400m ship in such a narrow channel, even when there are no other nearby berthed ships.

Fremantle Port’s answer that such long ships can reverse into the Inner Harbour is specious. It is unlikely that insurers will cover ships doing so.

Further dredging is a very expensive option because I suspect that the pilings supporting much of the inner harbour wharfage is too short to allow the further dredging necessary to accommodate the fast-developing Neo-Panamax ships.

The Spanish Port of Valencia is planning a big, new container terminal, with a 140ha terminal area and a depth of 20m. That depth is the same as Rotterdam’s Maasvlakte II terminals. A depth of 20m is becoming the new norm for major container terminals gearing themselves to handle the big ships of the future.

To allow efficient sorting and storage of containers a modern container terminal needs a big land area backing the wharf.

North Fremantle does not have the luxury of expanding onto reasonably-priced land around its container operations, facing the big expense of moving roads and rail infrastructure to allow easy access to sufficient backing area.

The new London Gateway terminal in the UK is an example of a highly automated container terminal that efficiently handles the new, much more efficient container ships.

Specialisation around the world is giving us the benefit of greatly increased economies of scale, eg car manufacturing.

We only benefit from such economies of scale if we have efficient trade with such producers, and they have efficient trade with our producers.

Having a bottleneck in the form of an obsolete and inefficient container terminal is to nobody’s benefit.

Southern WA therefore urgently needs a new container terminal, a process that’s happening everywhere overseas.

What currently is Britain’s busiest port in terms of tonnage shifted? Is it one of the familiar ports such as Tilbury, Southampton or Liverpool?

No, it’s what was the little fishing harbour of Felixstowe, 114km from London. It now handles 35 per cent of Britain’s containerised trade because it has the necessary depth, length and protection from the elements to service the new generation of bigger container ships.

It also is the base for a fan of efficient transport routes to inland destinations.

It’s concerning that the WA government Westport study is only looking at Cockburn Sound as the place for a new container terminal for southern WA. Thorough research is needed to determine if Kwinana is the best place for WA’s replacement premier container terminal.

That terminal needs efficient transport links with all the parts of WA that depend on efficient container trade.

All of our wool exports and much of our specialised grain exports is now containerised.

We must not fall into the common trap of only thinking about the metropolitan area.

I’m not advocating that we close Fremantle’s Inner Harbour. Moving the container terminal elsewhere will free up the Inner Harbour for the many other port operations, including bulk material shipments, repairs, cruise liners, and live animal shipments, although that probably has a limited future.

For the good of the whole of southern WA we urgently need to solve the political problems associated with establishing a replacement container terminal.

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