Friday, May 20, 2016

SOLAS - A Guide to the Current Export Freight Container Weighing and VGM Status in the UK

How Britain's Ports are Preparing to Cope with Method One Verified Gross Mass Calculations
Shipping News Feature
UK – WORLDWIDE – The incoming Safety at Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirements have caused all manner of consternation and confusion amongst shippers, ports and container freight carriers alike. With a start date set in stone as 1 July 2016 it is not an exaggeration to say the mandatory rules, agreed by the members of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and subsequently ratified in January, has produced panic in some quarters, and a studious attempt to ignore their responsibilities in others. The new rules require shippers to produce a Verified Gross Mass for every loaded export container worldwide and, as the deadline approaches, we look at the current situation in the UK.

Firstly it has been made abundantly clear that the responsibility for an accurate VGM lies solely with the declared shipper of the goods – not the port – not the carrying shipping line and certainly not the haulier who delivers the box to the docks. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has produced an excellent FAQ sheet (downloadable here) which addresses virtually every question that arises. The MCA will be the body charged with overseeing and auditing the system and therefore is the party with the most clout when it comes to taking advice.

For any who doubt that this system can be ignored, the MCA makes clear that judgement for those who transgress will fall under the auspices of the Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Cargoes) Regulations 1999. Under these terms penalties for offences could theoretically mean unlimited fines and up to 2 years in jail. To help bed in the new system the MCA says it will administer it with a ‘light touch’ for the first three months, removing the worry for those who may deliver an export container prior to the start date only to see the cargo shipped subsequent to July 1.

Port owners who have readied themselves for the legislation by setting up systems to weigh containers under Method 1, i.e. weighing the complete, loaded box as opposed to Method 2 where the VGM is an aggregate of all the goods plus the known tare weight of the container, will produce a VGM certificate for their customers, the responsibility for accuracy however still lies with shippers in the eyes of the MCA. Some operators, such as DP World’s London Gateway, will weigh all containers as a matter of course and have declared if the measurement varies by ± 5% or 500Kgs from that declared by the shipper, the port’s measurement will be taken as correct and the shipper charged for the weighing process (in London Gateway’s case £17.50).

The MCA says this variation is not however officially recognised as, with the variation which occurs in such weighing machinery, some operators might be ‘effectively on the edge of acceptability’ and that each infringement they discover will be judged on a case by case basis. Whilst scales acceptable to the MCA for Method 2 have to be within very clear parameters and regularly calibrated, the position for ports is not so clear.

The approved method for weighing at a port is again the London Gateway model. Every container is weighed as it is lifted from the inbound lorry and the VGM entered onto the port’s freight management system. This can be achieved by installed or retrofitted equipment on a straddle carrier etc. or by lifting the container off the truck, weighing on a suitable weighbridge and returning it to the truck. Another recommended method is to weigh the loaded lorry as it enters the port and reweigh the empty vehicle as it exits. This is often impractical as it not only requires weighing twice, but the bulk of lorries leave loaded with an incoming import box.

To the surprise of many the MCA has intimated that it will also accept a third method, namely the gross mass of the loaded truck is taken on entry to a port via the weighbridge and the tare weight, i.e. the declared weight of the cab, trailer, driver, fuel, lubricants etc. subtracted from the total. There are of course potentially serious flaws with this method and the MCA clearly foresees this will potentially be the method they have to monitor most closely.

This declared weight of a loaded truck is known as the ‘mass running order’ and requires a declaration as to the overall weight including, not only the equipment as per manufacturers specifications, but a fuel tank filled to at least 90% capacity, and it is this figure the MCA says it will accept, subject to close auditing. Contracting out the responsibility for establishing the VGM will not protect the shipper from prosecution by the MCA although the shipper will presumably have some financial recourse against its supplier assuming all legal protocols have been followed.

One point which both shippers and freight forwarding agents should be aware of is that when the responsibility for weighing the goods is contracted out, principally under Method 2, it is the shipper’s responsibility to exercise due diligence and it is recommended that this would require adhering to the checklist supplied by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) for the subcontracting of packing containers, the Cargo Transport Units (CTU Code).

At the time of going to print there have been no formal objections declared to try and delay introduction of the regulations (although such representations for a 12 month delay are theoretically possible up to the eve of inception). Such a representation would have to come from a member state of the IMO but would doubtless result in a massive loss of face for the country involved. After the initial objections raised in the US it is hoped the entire process will now be adopted multilaterally.

So, that is the position as it applies to the UK, other states will have their own legislation to ensure the process is followed as well as their own penalties for transgressors. Meanwhile we spoke to the leading ports in the UK to ascertain just how they are prepared to assist customers who do not subscribe to Method 2.

DP World – London Gateway and Southampton: Undoubtedly the best prepared of the British ports with a website dedicated to the subject. The terminals will charge £1 if a shipper declares a VGM or £17.50 if the port’s weight is required to be used. All containers will be weighed regardless whether or not a VGM is declared by the shipper and, as detailed above miscalculations of a shippers VGM will result in the port figure being substituted and the shipper charged for weighing at the tariff rate.

Port of Felixstowe – Having been comparatively fast off the blocks with a press release in February confirming it would be weighing containers, Britain’s largest port has been strangely quiet ever since. So far we have not been told how boxes will be weighed, and 40% of export containers come into the Suffolk port by rail, and rumours abound as to how much shippers will be charged. Watch this space as we are told a new release is due to be issued ‘in the next week or so’.

Liverpool – Peel Ports director for Mersey, David Huck, tells us the port has scheduled weighing to cause no delays whatsoever to shippers as it will employ the new ‘Autogates’ installed last year which automatically record overall mass for a vehicle passing through. This does mean however that the port is reliant on an accurate mass running order, as described above, being supplied by the haulier, and which has to satisfy the auditors of the MCA.

Tyne – Although still thought of as principally a bulk cargo facility the Port of Tyne actually handles a considerable volume of containers and has put in place a seamless VGM system using its existing reach stackers suitably kitted out with calibrated weighing systems. Unlike DP World, customers supplying their own VGM will not be charged however, as is also the case with some other ports. Until the technology on the reach stackers has been aligned with the Port Management System (PMS) no figures are available as regards the charges for containers weighed by the port. An announcement on this is expected shortly and estimates of container weighing costs in the Tyne are likely to be aligned closely to those of DP World.

Teesport – PD Ports have organised weighing via selected reach stackers which will only be done if the shipper has failed to provide a VGM. The Navis PMS is currently being upgraded to cope with electronic VGM information. At this point there are no plans to charge shippers an administration fee when they provide their own certified VGM. Those boxes arriving without this will automatically be weighed and the charge for this will be announced shortly. Operations Director Andrew Oxby pointed out that, in common with many other ports, several important decisions could only be considered after the release of the MCA information earlier this month.

Dover – As we write, an article on the development of the port as a cargo centre has been prepared for imminent publication. In it we will detail how the Port of Dover aspires to move from somewhere seen merely as a ferry port to one through which much more general cargo will pass in the near future. No information however is available at present on the question of establishing VGM.

Ramsgate – Although comparatively small in terms of container traffic the Port of Ramsgate aspires to an increased presence in the export container market. Again however there are no firm proposals evident as yet for weighing boxes.

Hull – Immingham – Cardiff – Associated British Ports (ABP) is responsible for 21 of the UK’s ports with these three the main container centres besides Southampton which is managed jointly with DP World and for which the figures published above apply. Hull became the company’s responsibility only on 1 May this year. ABP told us that every container they handle will be weighed and they will announce methodology and costs shortly.

Tilbury and London Container Terminal - Forth Ports who manage both sites say that a weighing service will be provided but the methods and charges will be publicised shortly.

We shall continue to follow the progress of the new SOLAS requirements both in the UK and elsewhere as the deadline draws closer. If you have information on how you are dealing with this you can keep us advised via the Handy Shipping Guide News Desk email.

Photo: Courtesy Konecranes.