Mediterranean and Northern Terminals:
how is the competition going?
by Manlio Trotta - MARCONSULT
Press reports and statements made by (Mediterranean) port operators
often refer to the widely held belief that in recent years Mediterranean
container terminals have made such sweeping improvements as to
be able to recover sea-going traffic from the terminals of the
This opinion was picked up during the Medtranspo 2000 Conference
(Genoa, 27-28 March), mainly in the declaration of the Port Authorities
of Genoa, Barcelona and Marseilles. Likewise, the Ligurian Port
Authorities (Genoa, Savona and La Spezia), presenting the TOC
2000 Conference (Rotterdam), show statistics that seem to confirm
that opinion ("The South grows more than North
First of all, the term "recover" is inappropriate. To
speak of recovery implies that traffic has been unduly diverted
from the Mediterranean to the North, thus skewing a pre-existing
hypothetical situation of "proper" traffic distribution.
But there is no proper distribution. It is no longer possible
to map out the territorial catchment area of a terminal, in that
the criteria of definition based on geographical distance, the
equivalence of overland transport costs, or other similar factors
have been abandoned. Through the services it offers and its ability
to fit into a logistical network, the terminal is itself capable
of contributing to establishing the confines of its own catchment
area, which cannot therefore be determined, and which are in any
Nevertheless, it is clear that competition exists between the
Mediterranean terminals and those of the Northern Range, in that
they constitute two different systems through which ocean-going
traffic can reach the economic and industrial heartland of Europe.
In order to assess the results of such competition, we would have
to compare ocean-going traffic through the Northern ports with
similar traffic through the Mediterranean ports. However, ocean-going
traffic can only be separated out from all the other types of
traffic by means of a detailed study, and such a study is not
available at the moment. It is nevertheless possible to make overall
comparisons which, albeit approximate, yield interesting assessments.
If we examine the container terminals of the coastal ports of
northern continental Europe (France, Belgium, Holland, Germany,
Poland) and compare their overall traffic handling with that of
the western Mediterranean and Adriatic terminals (Spain, France,
Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, islands), we obtain the data
reported in the table below, with reference to the last three
years (in thousands of TEU):
|Northern terminals ||17,710
Source: Data from Containerization International, elaborated by
These data reveal that the Mediterranean terminals increased their
share of total traffic handling from 41% in 1997 to 43% in 1999,
thus accounting for 55% of the increase in total traffic handled.
It is probably these results which give rise to claims that the
Mediterranean terminals are gaining ground in their competition
with the Northern terminals. Unfortunately, however, deeper analysis
shows that such claims are unjustified.
To begin with, we should reflect upon how traffic volumes are
determined, and upon the difference between traffic and cargo
As we know, the volume of cargo handled is calculated on the basis
of the operations performed on the quays. Each container constitutes
one unit of traffic volume, and when it is unloaded (or loaded),
it is counted as one unit handled. Handling volumes therefore
correspond exactly to traffic volumes.
If, however, transhipment operations are carried out at the terminal,
the container which is transhipped, and which again represents
one unit of traffic, will be counted as two units handled. Thus,
in the case of transhipment, the correspondence between traffic
and handling is lost, the sum of the units handled being greater
than the real traffic volume. If the percentage of transhipments
carried out by a terminal is not very high and is fairly constant,
the error committed by confusing traffic volumes with handling
volumes may be acceptable, in that it is marginal and systematic.
If, however, we examine a set of terminals which includes both
hub terminals and feeder terminals, one container (which again
represents one unit of traffic) will be counted twice at the hub
terminal and once at the final terminal, i.e. three times in all.
Here, the difference between handled volumes and traffic volumes
In any case, it is a mistake to confuse sea-going traffic with
the sum of the units handled by a port system.
When comparing the terminals of northern and southern Europe,
some fundamental differences between the two systems must be taken
The Northern Range is characterised by large terminals concentrated
in a few ports and by satellite terminals connected to these by
means of feeder lines. The percentage of transhipments carried
out in the large terminals is fairly constant, varying from 10%
to 30% in the majority of cases.
The Mediterranean, by contrast, has recently witnessed the foundation
and growth of large terminals devoted exclusively to transhipment
(Algeciras, Gioia Tauro and Malta) alongside traditional terminals
handling similar transhipment volumes to those of the Northern
terminals. Clearly, the traffic handled by terminals devoted exclusively
to transhipment will be counted at the final feeder terminals,
if bound for European destinations; if, on the other hand, the
final destination is outside Europe, such traffic will be irrelevant
to intra-European port competition. It is therefore wrong to regard
the Mediterranean transhipment terminals as competing with the
terminals of the Northern Range. Moreover, several Mediterranean
terminals do not in fact constitute a potential gateway to central
Europe, and therefore do not participate in the competition under
examination (e.g. the terminals of Greece or southern Italy).
In order to make a valid comparison, it therefore seems appropriate
to consider only the large Northern terminals on the one hand,
and the coastal terminals of the north-western Mediterranean and
Upper Adriatic on the other. By adopting this approach, not only
do we consider those terminals which truly compete, but we also
reduce the approximations mentioned earlier (thus bringing the
volumes handled more closely in line with sea-going traffic volumes).
The Northern terminals selected are those belonging to the ports
of Le Havre, Antwerp, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Bremen/Bremerhaven,
and Zeebrugge. The volumes handled by these terminals account
for about 88% of the total volume handled along the entire stretch
of coastline originally considered, and are therefore closely
representative of northern European traffic.
The Mediterranean terminals selected are those of the ports of
Valencia, Barcelona, Marseilles, Genoa, La Spezia, Livorno, Venice,
Trieste, and Koper.
The following table reports the volumes handled (in thousands
of TEU) by the ports selected.
|Selected Northern terminals||15,341
|Selected Mediterranean terminals||5,192
Source: Data from Containerization International, elaborated by
Examination of these data reveals that the Mediterranean terminals
selected, which had about a 25% share of overall handling in 1997,
accounted for 24% of the increase seen over the three-year period.
Their share of total handling has therefore remained practically
Obviously, there are differences among the various terminals within
each group; some have improved their performance, others have
remained stable, and some have worsened, not least on account
of external factors.
While caution must be exercised in interpreting the above results,
owing to the approximations inherent in the analysis, it cannot
be claimed that the Mediterranean terminals are gaining ground
on their Northern competitors. However, as a result of improved
efficiency, and in contrast with the past, they appear to be holding
This conclusion prompts us to re-examine the role which the Mediterranean
has recently begun playing with regard to Europe. While it is
commonly claimed that the Mediterranean is gradually taking over
from the Northern ports as a gateway to Europe from the Far East,
as we have seen, this is not really the case.
Instead, as a result of the development of transhipment terminals,
the Mediterranean is undergoing considerable change in terms of
its sea-going distribution system, in that direct routes (and,
consequently, the large terminuses) are being partly replaced
by communications networks (large hub ports, feeder lines, regional
port networks). Obviously, the new system will not entirely replace
the previous one (just as the large full container ships will
not entirely replace existing ocean-going vessels). Rather, the
two systems will probably co-exist for a long time without the
new situation determining a substantial diversion in traffic flows.
Competition between the Northern and Mediterranean ports will
probably be played out on land and will hinge on the efficiency
and competitiveness of the land-based logistical systems of access
to Europe. This is a field in which the south of Europe absolutely
Genoa, June 2000