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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 Northern Range.

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 Europe").

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 case flexible.

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):

19971999 Handling
Northern terminals 17,710 20,3972,687
Mediterranean terminals12,201 15,4743,273
Total handling29,911 35,8715,960

Source: Data from Containerization International, elaborated by MARCONSULT.

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 handling.

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 becomes considerable.

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 into account.

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.

19971999 Handling
Selected Northern terminals15,341 17,9602,619
Selected Mediterranean terminals5,192 6,019827
Total handling20,533 23,9803,446

Source: Data from Containerization International, elaborated by MARCONSULT.

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 unchanged.

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 their own.

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 must improve.

Genoa, June 2000

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