Congestion challenges continue at Felixstowe

UK’s busiest container port said it continues to experience very high demand for road and rail capacity, and measures introduced to manage the flow of containers were ‘having a positive impact’, although it apologised to any customers continuing to experience delays

The UK’s busiest container port, Felixstowe, is continuing to experience significant landside congestion challenges, with its container yard “at a high density” amid “a very high demand for road and rail capacity”.

The port said late last week that measures introduced to manage the flow of containers to and from the port were “having a positive impact”, although it apologised to any customers continuing to experience delays.

In a note to customers on Friday, the port said it continued to experience “very high demand for road and rail capacity as the volume of imports into the UK continues to surge post-lockdown. Our container yard remains at a high density, however, measures introduced last week to manage the flow of containers to/from the port are having a positive impact.

“In response to high demand for VBS slots, the port released over 1,600 additional slots in the last week and extended Sunday opening hours, allowing hauliers to access containers for UK shippers. We handled over 53,000 TEU to road haulage in the week and, on average, there were 749 VBS slots unused each day.

“We handled 16,887 TEU at our rail terminals and are working with all operators to further increase the volume of containers moved inland during the coming days.”

The port said labour availability at the port was “good”, and last week it was “pleased to welcome the first intake of new operational staff since lockdown measures eased. In total we are recruiting over 100 additional equipment drivers.”

The port said it was “confident that the measures, and close cooperation with our partners, will address these operational challenges”, although anecdotal reports suggest that the problems at Felixstowe have been further exacerbated by the problems affecting CMA CGM since last weekend, following the ransomware attack on the global container line.

As reported earlier this month, the UK’s largest container port has faced criticism from freight forwarding representatives after announcing it would no longer accept empty containers due to congestion, or would reduce the number of empty containers being returned to the port by rail and road.

Longer-term challenges

Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), said the operational performance at Felixstowe had been “very challenging for some time”, but the issues had escalated towards the middle of September, including “huge congestion” at the port that had led to “significant haulage problems for BIFA’s members whereby many containers can neither be collected, nor returned”.

Felixstowe has faced several challenges in recent times, and struggled to recover from the failed installation of a new terminal operating system (TOS) in 2018.

Keen suggested that the current issues link back to those problems, noting that the port’s “disastrous migration to a new in-house terminal operating system appears to be at the root of the current VBS (vehicle booking system) problems, which is exacerbating the congestion problems caused by other issues – including a huge increase in container moves ahead of the Golden Week in China, reduced container moves per hour at the quayside, and serious staffing issues.”

He said it was now time that the port’s operator, Hutchison, “considers BIFA members as direct customers of the port, and shows some willingness to discuss compensation for the damage caused and the increased costs that have been incurred by those members. At the very least, the port authority should extend free-time for quay rent and demurrage.”

Sources close to the port, however, have said that the current issues are not related to the TOS

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