Shipping lines and shippers find that terminal operators are falling behind in productivity in relation to larger ships docking at their facilities, reports the UK's Port Strategy.
Terminal charges represent a carrier's major costs, said Tommy Nilsson, head of terminals for Maersk Line, and shippers have to bear the brunt of them when passed on to customers.
Llew Russell, CEO of the shipowners' Shipping Australia Ltd (SAL), said: "The net TEU rate per crane hour has not changed significantly since the late 1990s despite newer and more technologically-advanced cranes being installed.
"The number of cranes available has been a problem in some terminals ...[and] serious port congestion has occurred in Sydney over the last two years now," he said.
Said Mr Nilsson: "Over the years, the terminals have not seen any significant development that has lifted productivity levels. Compared with many other industries, efficiency levels are trailing.
"Berth productivity has increased over the last years, but not to the same level as the increase in tonnage and the subsequent call sizes. We are therefore experiencing a negative scale advantage. Our vendors continue to increase their charges while we are de facto experiencing value erosion in some locations," he said.
Bigger ships, like Maersk's Triple E vessels, will be challenging for terminal operators. "With investment decisions in new terminal infrastructure and equipment typically being done for long periods, it is critical that port and terminal operators become more visionary and anticipate developments. In our view, the opportunity cost to a terminal of being too conservative is extremely high," Mr Nillson said.
Mr Nilsson said few terminal operators are working to ready themselves for the megaships. "Often terminals perceive their service levels to be good. But the question is if they are good enough. An open dialogue on requirements and opportunities for improvement is required to maximise benefits.
"Terminals operating in markets with limited competitive pressure typically have no incentive to 'go the extra mile' to improve their offering, and over time may find themselves outpaced by new terminals that offer a game changer."
SAL's Mr Russell said that in the breakbulk trades, his members have criticised Australian ports for the lack of adequate facilities such as sheds for coiled and rolled steel (eg, Fremantle), while the main capital city ports of Sydney and Melbourne, which account for 67 per cent of national container volume, have not delivered the productivity that lines need.
Another problem has been getting sufficient empty container park capacity especially in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, although some progress has been made recently, Mr Russell said.
A hot button topic has been port privatisation in Australia. Ports in South Australia have been privatised years ago. The Port of Brisbane was sold nearly two years ago on a 90-year lease and Port Botany will be sold in 2013.
"In the case of the container ports of Brisbane and Sydney, there is only competition at the margins and the new owners are and will be in a strong market position. Good governance arrangements around such port operators are essential to avoid the earning of monopoly rents," Mr Russell said.
And what about the end customer of the port - the exporters whose goods are the fundamental reason for the port's existence?
New Zealand Shippers' Council president Greg Steed, which produced a "Bigger Ships" report in 2010, urges ports to move to accommodate bigger ships. All four big New Zealand ports need to be capable of handling ships of around 7,000 TEUers by 2020. One in the North Island and one in the South Island need to be ready within three years.
Tauranga is ahead with plans costed and funded including berth extension, new cranes and dredging once approved. The shippers' council wants to see other ports moving forward the same way.