SURGING containerised import volumes through the Port of Melbourne, coupled with only average empty container evacuations by shipping lines, mean that the build-up of empty container stock has reached critical levels in Melbourne, according to the Container Transport Alliance Australia.

The CTAA said this has resulted in most of the empty container parks in Melbourne being near or at operational capacity, causing delays in import container de-hires, difficulties in accessing export empties in some instances, expensive redirections, truck queuing and added landside logistics costs.

And, the alliance said the build-up of empty containers involves major shipping lines, notably Maersk/Hamburg Süd, MSC, COSCO/China Shipping and Hyundai.

In the case of Maersk/Hamburg Süd, CTAA said their major empty container park providers, Westlink, Altona North and Port Melbourne Containers have reached capacity, including an emergency spill-over yard in Francis Street, Yarraville. This has led Maersk to redirect 40-foot empty containers to Lawson Empty Container Park in Somerton in Melbourne’s outer north.

For those container transport operators who are based in Melbourne’s west, the longer travel time to/from Somerton is a significant concern.

Current major road works in Melbourne, mixed with the longer travel distance, add up to extra operational costs for many. This also ties up valuable truck and trailing equipment that otherwise would be used for customer deliveries.

CTAA Director Neil Chambers said the alternative of having no de-hire option for Maersk/Hamburg Süd empties is less palatable as containers would be stockpiling even more quickly in transport operators’ yards.

“This is causing significant additional transport, rehandling and administration costs of approx. $90 to $200 per container depending on the level of delays. It is a matter for individual transport operators to discuss with their customers, but it’s a real concern due to the significant empty container capacity constraints being experienced right now,” Mr Chambers said.

“CTAA calls on Maersk/Hamburg Süd to try to double their efforts to repatriate more empties away from Melbourne, and also to provide alternative de-hire options to alleviate undue empty container handling costs and delays.”

Mr Chambers said ACFS Webb Dock announced it will now accommodate Maersk 40-foot high cube units marked for PMC from Monday, 18 January.

“We understand however that current Maersk vessel schedules and anticipated empty exports won’t come close to reducing the current empty container build up. So, empty management congestion will be with us for some time yet regrettably, bringing with it added costs and delays,” Mr Chambers said.

He said the delays experienced in managing COSCO/China Shipping empties are also of serious concern.

“COSCO’s wholly owned empty container park, Oceania Container Services in Jones Road, Brooklyn is constantly congested, and truck arrival capacity is limited. Before Christmas, COSCO redirected some empty equipment types to Allied Container Services in Tottenham. However, Allied was soon overwhelmed and the alternative has now ceased,” Mr Chambers said.

“The lack of timely arrival slots at ECPs means that transport operators fight a losing battle to meet de-hire timeframes which avoid importers being slugged container detention fees. Alas, this is not always possible in the current congested operating environment.”

Mr Chambers said whenever there is a redirection ordered on containers for de-hire from one facility to another, there is a time delay of at least 24 hours or longer for transport operators to manage. In that time, containers can breach the detention free time imposed by the shipping line.

“In many instances, transport operators aren’t responsible for those delays, yet become embroiled in fractious arguments with freight forwarders and importers about who is responsible for paying the shipping line’s container detention bill,” he said.

“It is perverse that container detention fee demands from shipping lines have skyrocketed as empty container congestion has risen. This means that the shipping lines are profiting from inefficiencies over which they have ultimate control to fix by increasing the level of empty container evacuations from the port.”

Mr Chambers went on to point out that transport operators aren’t a direct party to the shipping line ocean carriage contract, which underpins the container detention policy attaching to the contract.

“Importers and freight forwarders are urged to pay greater attention to the deal they can achieve with shipping lines on the detention free period for any shipment.

“Certainly, when delays are anticipated, or arise, importers and freight forwarders should be speaking early to the shipping line to negotiate an increase in the detention free time. This is certainly the case when there may be a quarantine intervention on the shipment, or other delays in unpacking the cargo and readying the empty for de-hire,” Mr Chambers said.

“Unfortunately, many forwarders and importers believe that it’s the transport operators’ job to avoid containers going into detention while they are completing the landside logistics task. Increasingly, that is an unrealistic assumption that should be avoided. Many transport operators are tightening their policies on container detention liability. “Importers and forwarders need to take charge of their own contractual destiny and negotiate a more appropriate timeframe directly with the shipping lines.”