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commentary by Norman Douglas in Southampton
A monthly intelligence report on container topics
Announcements, and rumours, and speculation on the ferry scene
SPECULATION about what is happening on Channel ferry routes, plus announcements (exclusively forecast in this column last September following a visit to Rotterdam) of a new container service across the North Sea by North Sea Ferries, are being interpreted in freight circles as an indication that at least in this particular theatre of operations, as opposed to the North Atlantic, there is no lack of confidence in unit load traffic requiring carriage between this country and Western Europe.
It was only a year ago that North Sea Ferries general manager, Ian Churcher, was stressing the flexibility of the roll-on/roll-off ferry as opposed to the all-container lift-on/lift-off ships operated by competitors such as Bell Lijn, British Railways. etc. • Now, according to the Press statement put out by his parent company, P and 0 Steam Navigation Co.. North Sea Ferries' newly announced five times per week in each direction service, is to be commenced as the result of "direct demand from shippers and the recent growth of freight carryings from both Hull and Rotterdam". Two chartered ships will be used and the service will commence as soon as a new container crane is erected at the Queen Elizabeth Dock at Hull, which, I understand will be this autumn.
With this new service, NSF hopes to be able to meet a growth in container and trailer traffic, cater for the flourishing export trade of earth-moving equipment, caravans, cars, etc., and carry commodities which they cannot carry in their passenger ferries because of Board of Trade safety regulations.
Changes at Southampton
But if Hull has stolen the limelight with the announcement of the new container service, rumours, counter-rumours, and the comings and goings of rail freight planners in Southampton lead to the conclusion that announcements of new services between this port and France are imminent.
Currently, Thoresen Car Ferries and Normandy Ferries are working -jointly" to provide what amounts to a high-capacity roll-on/roll-off service between Southampton and Le Havre, with Thoresen—by far the most popular operator, I gather from hauliers who use both services—providing additional sailings to Cherbourg.
While both operators take containers, which are carried across the Channel on special slave trailers, it is a recognized fact that both are not really geared up to carry the container traffic that may replace ferry trailer traffic, as a result of the quota scheme that came into force at the beginning of the month, which was highlighted in last week's Commerical Motor.
Rumours that British and French Railways are to enter the arena again on this route (remember, it was as a result of British Railway's withdrawal of their Southampton/Le Havre/St. Maio service in the early 1960s that brought the Norwegian. Thoresen, into the area in the first place) have been denied by BR at least, and I understand that British Railways have "cold feet" about such a proposition.
French Railways on the other hand are not so faint hearted, it would seem. Acting on information received from a canvass of French Hauliers in Le Havre, coupled with unconfirmed reports from a reliable source that the "marriage" between Thoresen and Normandy Ferries is to be annulled on March 19, it is known officials of French Railways have been searching, without too much success, for uncongested ferry facilities in Portsmouth and Southampton.
But they are not the only ones on the hunt in the area for new opportunities. Freightliners Ltd., whose facilities between Stratford and Paris via the Dover-Dunkirk rail ferry, were discontinued last year, are known to be wooing the Southampton ferry operators rather strongly. The "deal" is to link, by roll-on/roll-off means using a pool of seagoing skeletal trailers, the Millbrook Freightliner container terminal, adjacent to Southampton's container facilities, with recently installed rail container terminal facilities which have been provided by S.N.C. F. (French Railways) at Le Havre.
Costly Customs checks
What will be he result remains to be seen. For my money. Thoresen may well "win" this traffic, being able to guarantee exclusive freight capacity on its Viking IV all-cargo ferry. Whether it will be able to get over the extra costs involved in hauling the containers between the Freightliner terminal and its ferries is another matter, for it is at Southampton in particular that container users face some rather crippling costs if they are unlucky enough to have their containers selected for Customs examination, as 3 per cent of containers passing through the port are.
At Southampton the cost of -turning out" a container for examination is no less than £26 per unit, while haulage from the old port to the terminal and back adds a further £4 each way.
Seatrain control all
A recent newcomer to the Southampton container scene, incidentally, is Seatrain Lines, whose first North Atlantic container ship called at the port at the beginning of the year. Like its principal competitor, Sea-Land. Seatrain controls every facet of its operation— the ships, the boxes, and the skeletal running equipment for overland road distribution.
The many haulage contractors up and down the country who have agreed to haul its containers merely provide tractive units. Seatrain, though, is not necessarily wedded to road for overland deliveries. Freightliner services, particularly between southern England and the North and North West, will be used wherever practicable and economical. Reckoned, in American container circles, to be one of the most sophisticated operators in the game (with considerable experience gained by operating services between New York and Puerto Rico, just like Sea-Land), Seatrain, being late on the European scene, will benefit from• the mistakes of its competitor pioneers. Its "gimmick" is based on pure customer service—to supply an empty container to a user, wherever he is in the country, within 24 hours, as an official of the company put it to me recently.