UK ports must cope with a four-fold increase in container traffic by 2020.
Andrew Mylius looks at three major new terminal schemes designed to meet the challenge.
Watching the colossal bulk of a container ship glide up the River Thames in London or at Southampton Water can be a spectacular and surreal experience. Massed like vast 1960s housing experiments, the vessels and their cargo, stacked high and wide over the length of the deck, dwarf everything in their shadow.
Today's largest container ships, owned by operators such as P&O Nedlloyd and Maersk Sealand are giants capable of carrying more than 6,600 shipping industry standard 20ft containers, known as 'TEU'. They have a draft of 14.5m, measure 350m long and are up to 22 boxes wide. In the last year, 20 have come into service.
There has been an inexorable increase in the size of container ships in the last decade, mirroring the rapid growth in popularity of containerisation as a means of moving freight. Globally, container traffic is growing at 4.5% a year. While ships are not expected to get a great deal bigger - they will widen to accommodate 24 containers - ports are coming under intense pressure to expand.
Only about a third of the containers handled by UK ports are actually for import or export.
The bulk of traffic is generated by transhipment, with containers offloaded from one boat to another en route to a far flung destination. Because of its position as a crossing point for ships plying between North America, Europe and South East Asia, the English Channel has become a key transhipment point for international carriers.
In seven years, from 1994 to 2001, the number of container movements at UK ports mushroomed from 3.364M TEU to 6M TEU, with Felixstowe, Southampton and Thamesport accounting for 65% of the total.
By 2020, it is reckoned movements could be anywhere from 9.5M TEU to 14.25M TEU a year.
Shipping firms, port operators and the government are united in their desire to see UK container port capacity increased, and this must start to happen within three to four years. Shipping operators take a long term approach to planning and need to be certain that UK ports can deliver the rapid ship turnaround times they require - vessels are seldom in dock for more than 24 to 36 hours. If port upgrades cannot be delivered, it is feared shipping lines will take their trade to competitors such as Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp and Le Havre.
Though there are plans to develop a transhipment hub in the natural deep water harbour at Scapa Flow, Orkney, principal attention is focused on developing hub terminals at Felixstowe and Southampton and in the Thames.
Dibden Bay Southampton
Across the estuary from its existing terminal at Southampton, port operator Associated British Ports (ABP) is proposing to build a 220ha terminal at Dibden Bay, capable of handling 2.3M TEU a year. It will be huge: Southampton is being upgraded to increase capacity from 1.2M TEU to 1.5M TEU.
Environmental conservation and protest groups fiercely oppose the scheme, which borders the New Forest and mudflats that are designated sites of special scientific interest and protected Ramsar sites for wading birds.
Plans are being scrutinised by a public inquiry scheduled to end in November, although a planning decision is not expected until autumn 2003.
The Dibden Bay site consists of 300ha of reclaimed land, built up between 1945 and 1980 from dredged spoil. ABP wants to install a 2km long quay wall, dredging the foreshore immediately in front of it to create a 16m deep 'pocket' of water for berthing ships.
A decision has yet to be taken on whether a suspended quay structure or solid piled wall will be adopted, but the design team favours a combi wall of 2m diameter tubular steel piles with intermediate steel sheet piles.
Piles will start at 7m chart datum and will be toed into the silty sands and clays of the underlying Bracklesham Beds at -40m chart datum. Major ground improvement will be required across the site to support plant and container stacks, and crane rails and buildings will need to be supported on piled foundations.
Scheme design is being carried out with a 100 year working life in mind.
Environmental concerns centre on dredging alongside the quay wall, which will result in the removal of 2km of mudflats. Yet, according to Scott Wilson director Kim Candler, these are already being eroded by the natural action of tide and current. To limit the negative impact of the new terminal on wildlife, ABP even plans to use the soft material to recharge close to 3km of receding mudflats downstream, presently on course to be eroded away inside 20 years. Hydraulic modelling carried out by ABP's in house research laboratory ABP Mer shows the additional material will ensure their existence for at least 50 years.
To cushion neighbouring Hythe marina village from the terminal, ABP plans to excavate an inter-tidal creek immediately downstream of the terminal, creating a rich habitat for wildlife and a swathe of green space.
Traffic generated by the terminal is also alarming the environmentalists. Though the majority of containers will never leave the port, at full capacity the terminal is forecast to generate an additional 48 trains and 3,100 HGV trips a day - a truck will arrive at or leave Dibden every 30 seconds.
To cope with the extra rail traffic, a spur will be built off the Fawley branch line, while road traffic would be handled by a 0.5km link road to the A326.
The A326, which is already partially dualled, would be fully dualled up to the A27.
Construction of the terminal will be carried out in three phases, with ABP aiming to have the first up and running by 2005 and final completion in 2011.
INFOPLUS www. dibdenterminal. co. uk www. nceplus. co. uk/magazine