Container shipping

Page 3 – Transforming shipping

By the late 1960s, the valuable Atlantic shipping trade was being containerised. New Zealand ports followed developments closely, since some ports were expected to lose much of their overseas trade when the industry moved to big box ships. The government and transport consultants issued a variety of reports and the harbour boards lobbied hard.

Bigger and bigger?

The container ships that began calling here in the late 1970s were some of the world’s largest, although their 2500-TEU capacity was modest by modern standards.

In 2002, P&O Nedlloyd built 10 4100-TEU ‘Albatross class’ ships, the last designed for the New Zealand trade. They had a large 1300-TEU refrigerated capacity. Since then most have been withdrawn. Generally smaller ships now hub to Australian or Asian ports rather than sail directly to Europe.

Nevertheless, ports such as Auckland and Otago are currently upgrading their channels and wharves to handle 6000- to 7000-TEU ships expected to be displaced from other routes by the new 11,000- to 13,000-TEU ships entering service, and the 18,000-TEU monsters on order.

After some dithering, in 1969 the Conference Lines (which dominated New Zealand’s trade with Britain and Europe), ordered four 41,000-ton container ships for delivery in 1973. They would serve Auckland and Wellington only, since the lines wanted to get the most out of their newer conventional ships.

Then, in May 1971, as Auckland and Wellington were spending millions on their reclamations and terminals, the Conference Lines pulled the plug, cancelling three of the four big ships. The ports were outraged, as were exporters, since containerisation was well underway at Australian ports.

Fortunately, all was not lost. Germany’s Columbus Line had been trading to New Zealand since 1960, and felt confident enough to order three 21,000-ton ships for the North America trade. Columbus added Port Chalmers to its schedule and fitted a gantry crane to each ship to allow them to work cargo until shore facilities were fully operational.

Also in 1971, Associated Container Transportation (ACT, an Anglo-Australian consortium) introduced a rival North American service, the PACE service.

The Britain/Europe trade was still the main one, however. The New Zealand Ports Authority regulated capital spending in order to reduce costly duplication of facilities. Most lines wanted Port Chalmers as the South Island’s sole container port. But in 1975, in a political compromise, Port Chalmers was declared a two-crane port and Lyttelton got one.

The big new ships and their boxes (three sets per ship on average) were too much for any of the traditional British shipping lines that dominated our export trades. The Port Line, the Federal Steam Navigation Co. and the New Zealand Shipping Co. disappeared or were merged into consortia such as ACT and OCL (Overseas Containers Ltd). Only the Blue Star Line and Shaw Savill Line owned any container ships, and neither survived for long.

One first-generation container ship could do the work of five conventional ships, and the number of ships trading between New Zealand and Europe declined drastically in the mid-late 1970s.

Containerisation brought challenges. Seagoing and stevedoring jobs vanished, and owners kept cutting crew numbers and hiring seafarers from low-wage countries. It also took time to make the best use of technology. In the 1990s, for example, the two-ship Tasman Express Line used advanced computer tracking systems to shave millions from its container leasing bills.