Blog November 28, 2014

Supersize me: The implications of ultra-large ships for intermodal operators

By Nicola Byers

Ready yourself for a tidal wave of titanic tonnage. As the average size of container vessels continues to grow, these ships are large and in charge. But what does this mean for container supply chains and intermodal terminal operators?

Growing up big and strong

Containerships are simply getting bigger. The average size of new builds doubled from 4,000 TEU to 8,000 TEU between 2009 and 2014, according to research by Drewry. Over 80% of the current order book is made up of vessels that are larger than the current average size of 8,000 TEU.

The past couple of years have seen the dawn of the era for the super-sized ultra-large container vessel (ULCV). There are currently 95 ULCVs live in the world fleet (vessels of 13,400+ TEU), with a further 103 such ships on order. Next year, 55 ULCVs will be delivered, with an average size of 16,200 TEU.

This trend shows no sign of stopping. Last week, it was reported that Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container carrier by capacity, is planning to order around six ULCVs of up to 19,000 TEU at Korean yards. The line has already taken delivery of 13 of its 20 18,000-TEU ‘Triple E-class’ containerships.

At the port

In short, the growing size of container vessels is complicating things.

Vessel sharing agreements and alliances mean that containerships now contain boxes for several different shipping lines, each with their own intermodal operators. This increases inter-terminal transfers and makes yard operations more complex.

The ever-increasing size of ships has caused the number of port calls in northern Europe to fall, from 160 per week in 2009 to 100 per week this year. Conversely, the volumes handled per port call have increased because the average ship capacity has grown from just over 7,000 TEU in 2009 to 11,000 TEU today, according to Drewry research.

In turn, this has caused the required target productivity of port terminals to double since 2004. Around 150 berth moves of boxes per hour are required when loading and unloading vessels today.

For intermodal operators

What does this mean for intermodal operators? For one thing, more work.

Fewer direct services to ports means more transhipment, much of which can be done inland. Port terminals today depend more closely on the quality of their inland links in order to create cost-effectiveness and efficiency that will attract shipping lines to call there.

Liner shipping alliances such as 2M (Maersk and MSC) and the Ocean Three (CMA CGM, UASC and CSCL) depend heavily on certain regional ports and terminals, which in turn depend on intermodal and inland terminal operators to help uphold an efficient and reliable supply chain.

The cost of transportation from the ship to inland terminals is one of the key selling points when shipping a cargo. By making this transition efficient and cost-effective, everybody wins – but this will intensify the competition between intermodal operators serving the hinterland of key ports. Cost is a key part of this, and shipping lines will always choose the port terminal that can offer them integrated and low-cost inland links.

In this age of vessel sharing, keeping documentation in order during complicated inter-terminal transfers is key. MRI Intermodal Software has developed an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) tool, which enables container lessors, tank operators and shipping lines to send and receive EDI messages to and from all business partners including depots, customers and vendors. It allows data files to be received, translated and transmitted using a wide variety of industry standard formats.

For more information on MRI Intermodal’s EDI solution, please contact or visit