Tuesday, November 17, 2020

As Problems Persist at the Port of Felixstowe the Call for a Change in Attitude Persists

Freight Forwarders, Hauliers and Shippers Being Punished for Ineptitude
Shipping News Feature

UK – Whilst it is undoubtedly good news to hear there are supposedly 11,000 TEUs currently resting in Felixstowe, all crammed with PPE destined for the NHS should it need it, that may be perceived by some very unhappy people in the logistics sector as just a smokescreen to offer excuses for the abysmal performance of late at 'Britain's busiest port'.

Those thousands of containers may well be in store at the Suffolk port but what is certain is that the problems we have been writing about for months may in fact be getting worse rather than better. Originally the IT snafu which caused so many delays was generally excused by shippers and shipping companies alike, but as weeks of problems turned to months, attitudes have hardened.

The British International Freight Association (BIFA) represents the freight forwarding community which answers to all those clients who want to know where their goods are, and why the delay, and in September Director General Robert Keen told us at length of the disappointment at service levels and the case for port operator Hutchison or others to pay compensation for the myriad problems.

Now performance at other UK ports is apparently deteriorating, linked in no small way to the surge in traffic pre-Brexit and which Felixstowe is plainly unable to deal with. Robert Keen said today:

”Our members have faced multiple operational difficulties for months at the Port of Felixstowe and increasingly at other ports such as London Gateway and Southampton. Members are incurring significant additional costs as a result of the ongoing disruption to operations, caused by circumstances over which they have no control.

”We understand that the port authority is responding to the challenges and we hope that those responses are successful, although we note that the port authority has said that the current high volumes will last at least into December and possibly through into the New Year so we can only hope that the work they are doing to minimise the impact on daily operations and to maintain vital supply chains is effective.”

For its part the Port puts up a spirited defence, saying cleaning of machinery due to the Covid outbreak has reduced VBS booking slots but several thousands of these are not taken up by hauliers each week. Both terminals are working Sundays for road transport operations and 95% of import containers are available for collection within 10 minutes of discharge from the vessel, with average turn round times for trucks running at under 45 minutes.

This however does not include the fact that vessels are having to divert from Felixstowe to other ports, even overseas, with boxes shipping back via feeder services to alternative UK ports. The failing of the nGen traffic management system, installed in June and still apparently not working correctly, together with the pandemic and the pre-Christmas stockpile means things are unlikely to improve any time soon.

Shippers told the BBC this week of stock which has sat ‘on the water’ for weeks making it impossible to guarantee filling orders in time for Christmas, whilst hauliers continue to refer the vehicle booking system as ‘a joke’.

Certainly the fact that Hutchison Ports chose to allow executive director, Clemence Cheng, to join the Government’s Transport Services Trade Advisory Group at a time when many shippers were saying he should be putting his own house in order, and the simultaneous hiring of Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling for 7 hours a week at a paltry salary of £100,000 annually, made for a PR disaster which should have been avoided.

In a bid to correct both situation and image, this month saw the return of Chris Lewis, former chief executive at the port and now fulfilling the same role for Hutchison Ports UK. Mr Lewis has spent his last decade since leaving Felixstowe in senior roles for rivals DP World, which runs both London Gateway and Southampton, as well as Maritime Transport, a role he will also have to relinquish.

Mr Lewis’ appointment will go some way to appeasing the hauliers and freight forwarders who are baying for blood, but they will want to see progress quickly. The lines are being perceived by some as money hungry, with no interest in the freight as soon as it hits the quay, dumping both full and empty containers as quickly as possible and setting out for another rotation.

This of course is normal trading practice, however when charges for container rent and demurrage are mounting, and endless hours in the transport office on the phone fail to command sufficient vehicle booking spaces, the practice is seen as too one sided for many.

In his statement in September Robert Keen called for at the very least an extension of quay rent and demurrage times which were hitting his members in the pocket when they were powerless to do anything to mitigate the situation. Two months on he, and thousands of customers, are still waiting.