Ports are demand driven - the steady 5-6% per anum growth in container shipping means ports are being asked to increase their handling capacity.
Shipping firms looking for economies of scale have been pushing the size of ships relentlessly upward. The largest vessels nowcarry 7,000 TEU (20ft equivalent units - a typical long container is 2 TEU). Vessels are nearing their maximum size, believes Hutchison Westports chief engineer George Steele. But the latest generation of aquatic behemoths require ports to undertake major upgrading.
Navigation channels require deeper dredging - 14.5m below chart datum is now required. Hutchison Westports' navigation into Felixstowe and Harwich is supplied by Harwich Haven Authority, which undertakes dredging and maintenance.
Steele reports that European Union environmental legislation and increasing public environmental awareness is making dredging a complex and costly activity. Port expansion on land must also satisfy tough environmental criteria. Schemes are approved by the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions.
Much new work must be offset by mitigation - for example the creation of replacement mud flats or wetlands when existing habitats are jeopardised by port-related works. Steele says environmental impact assessments and hydraulic analyses are playing a valuable role in winning consent for schemes.
Growth in ship size is forcing ports to procure ever larger cranes. The largest rail mounted gantries now have a 20 box span. Highly mobile, rubber tyred gantries are increasingly used to move containers between stacksand to road and rail freight yards.
Greater loads imposed by heavier cranes and larger container stacks are requiring upgrades to paved surfaces. Accelerated settlement in quays built on reclaimed land is also resulting in a need for more regular repair and maintenance.
Shipping firms demand productivity. 'A ship is an expensive bit of kit to have sitting around a port and not plying its trade,' Steele comments. Turn-around time is being cut through sophisticated 'house-keeping' or stack management. There is a move towards automatic grounding systems which plan container moves for optimum efficiency. Semi-automated cranes are being introduced to cut movement time.
There is a move towards transporting freight by rail - 15% container traffic through Felixstowe last year was by train. Rail infrastructure is set to be a growth area in ports.