Tilbury —a thriving freight port
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by David Lowe. mInstTA. AM BI M
TILBURY is faring well these days. Much Press coverage over recent months—and years—has tended to indicate the contrary but in fact were it not for the recession in shipping in particular and in industry generally, this section of the Port of London would be very busy indeed.
Despite present trade conditions I was very impressed to see on a recent visit to the dock, a great deal of activity taking place on the container and packaged timber berths, and more berths are being built. Efforts, too, are beipg made to improve access and facilities for road vehicles delivering and collecting from the dock. A new road system has been in operation for some time which provides good access direct to A13 trunk road and eventually it will link with the planned London North Orbital Road. The new road does away with the need for large vehicles to negotiate the hardly adequate streets of the town and the notorious snake-like bends over the railway bridge which was the old route into the dock. A lorry park and reception area are being constructed on the dock and will be put into use very soon, monitoring the flow of vehicles to the various sheds and berths within the dock; ensuring both that excessive queues do not build up on dock roads not designed for the purpose and that when vehicles do go forward they make for the correct collection or delivery point; and finally but not least making certain that all the necessary documentation is in order.
It has been an all too common feature for vehicles to join a queue only to discover some considerable time later, when their turn comes to unload, that they have joined a queue for the wrong shed or berth. The reception area system will do away with this and at the same time will provide drivers with better waiting facilities. As a canteen /rest room for drivers will be situated on the park, even if waiting time is not necessarily reduced, at least the drivers will have a more comfortable time.
Waiting time, and the resultant complaints from driyers, hauliers and the
trade associations alike, is a problem whicl in fact does very much concern the (loci staff despite the impression given by SOMI complainants that the dock staff "could no care less". In many cases it is a problem o the operator's own making; many do no make use of the prebooking system fo export traffic and this leads to delay fo themselves when they arrive and delay fo those who have prebooked. Worst of all there appears to be a great reluctance on thl part of operators to make use of di, extended dock working times; 14 hours oi most berths and 24 hours on the comaine berths.
The dock authorities realize operator have been hampered by the drivers' hour regulations but they cannot understand wh: driving shifts cannot, or will not, b organized to enable vehicles to make use c these out-of-normal-hours facilities.
It certainly does seem a waste of valuabl driving time for a vehicle to wait at Tilbur for two, three or four hours between 8 an and 5 pm, and suffer the inevitable traffic delays getting to and from the dock at those times when, by re-planning, the vehicle could come down in the evening, or very early morning, when traffic is light and when there will be little, delay in the dock. On the container berths men and machines are stretched to the limit during the normal day-shift, loading and unloading queues of vehicles, while at night men and machines have to stand virtually idle.
The prebooking system for export cargoes operates in periods from 7 am to 11 am, 11 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 5 pm and 5 pm onwards and what happens is that most vehicles arrive together at the latter end of the period for which they have booked. This leads to a carry-over of work into the next period.
Trade through Tilbury is running at a high level; 24 million tons of cargo is expected to pass through the container terminal alone in 1971, and despite the problems suffered by the long standstill on the OCL berth, which handles the OCL /ACT Australia container trade, the rest of the dock continues to work as normal.
The recent history of Tilbury is also the history of a number of notable events in port industrial relations and shipping circles. No. 40 berth which was from its inception in May 1968 until very recently used by United States Lines was the first to operate what became known as the "tidal agreement" by which the berth labour met US Lines requirements for a 24-hour turnround for its ships. Round-the-clock working was called for and dockers came on duty at any time when the ship came in and worked continuously, taking staggered meal breaks, until it went out. Eventually this system developed until a single tide 12-hour turnround was achieved. This, according to Mr Peter Padgett, manager of the dock, was unique in the world at that time.
Another significant event at Tilbury was the start of the packaged timber trade from Canada in 1966. Before this all timber had come into London loose, most of it to Surrey Docks, and the dock operations had been based on piecework rates under the gang system. Surrey Docks could no longer handle the larger package timber ships so they had to come to Tilbury, and as the labour force could not manhandle 24/3-ton timber packs a new gang system was needed.
The timber berth operations were mechanized and the PLA negotiated with its own labour for a berth crew system, the crews being completely flexible to do any job at any time. Only 16 men formed a crew and they would drive trucks or do other work. Piecework was abolished and weekly wages introduced; £27 per week at that time which was above the average but the labour force had been reduced from the 60/70 men previously employed on the berth. The men liked the deal but employees of' other stevedoring firms did not. They soon, however, came round to this way of thinking and all agreements within Tilbury are now based on this original agreement for the "upstanding weekly wage".
On the container berths this agreement now provides the men with £55 for an average 35-hour week paid monthly by cheque and has been responsible for a very significant change in the attitudes of the dock labour. The men have more stability of employment, they have become acceptable customers for mortgages and in consequence their interest is in getting on with the job and not losing time. The old system of making up lost strike pay by overtime or bonuses cannot apply these days because there is no provision for any such payments.
Again, despite the adverse publicity about the effects of the introduction of Devlin II in British ports as a whole, Tilbury appears to have very little in the way of problems. The common-user container berths are working at near capacity, so is the OCL berth and the general cargo berths are busy, particularly the forest products—paper, pulp liner board and timber—berths. Negotiations are advancing with clients to replace the loss of US Lines from 40 berth to Harwich and for new trade for the, as yet, undeveloped berths in the dock. The grain terminal has had little mention but suffice it to say that I was told it is full and has broken some loading records in achieving this situation.
The loss of the OCL /ACT Far East container trade to Southampton is not felt—or it was certainly not indicated that it was felt—so badly as I would have expected. Tilbury has a lot of other container trade—Canadian Pacific Ships, for instance, make considerable use of the dock and their containers, although relatively new on the scene are stacked in great numbers on the common-user berth. Johnson Line has its own berth in the dock using ships' gear for unloading, saving the PLA from the need to provide cranage.
Tilbury, and the whole of the PLA for that matter, are not at all happy about the rumours that they are ailing and ready to close down. The new PLA chairman, Mr John Lunch, confirmed very recently that the port was being reshaped in accordance with a plan formulated in 1967 and updated in January 1970. By the end of 1972 he expected the port to be second in Europe only to Rotterdam.