Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Baltimore/Suez: are ships and infrastructure adapted to each other?

April 05 2024

The increase in the size and mass of container ships raises the question of their compatibility with the infrastructure supposed to accommodate them.

At first glance, the blockage of the Suez Canal caused by the grounding of the Ever Given in March 2021 has little to do with the collapse of the Baltimore Bridge, hit by the Dali in March 2024. However, the two events have a major point in common: they raise the question of the evolution of the size and mass of ships compared to the capacity of infrastructure.

1/ The size of ships

In both cases, it was like trying to thread a needle, or in other words navigating through a passage in which manoeuvrability is extremely restricted. The colossal Ever Given got into difficulty in the narrowest portion of the Suez Canal. As for the Dali, the accident occurred while passing under a bridge, whose unprotected piers are extremely close to the upstream and downstream channel.

However, in both cases we are dealing with large ships. Even though the Dali is considered as a container ship of rather modest size, due to its carrying capacity of "only" 10,000 TEUs, it is still 300 metres long (three football pitches!) by 48 metres wide. The Ever Given, meanwhile, is about 400 metres long by 60 metres wide, with a capacity of 24,000 TEUs.

Faced with the growing disparity between the size of ships and that of infrastructure, common sense would therefore suggest that the passage of large ships in critical areas should now be better secured by imposing towing assistance.

Is it logical that the captains and the operators of ships over 300 metres remain the only decision makers in whether to be assisted or not by the (costly) local towing companies? The question arises, as these large vessels do not lend themselves to unplanned emergency manoeuvres.

2/ Adaptation of structures 

The race to build yet bigger ships, which has marked containerised maritime transport in recent years, has raised the question of the adaptation of port infrastructure. But the challenge actually goes far beyond this factor.

Regarding bridges, solutions do exist and have already been implemented. In 1980, the cargo ship Summit Venture struck Tampa's Sunshine Skyway Bridge, partially destroying it. During the construction of a new bridge, parallel to the old one, significant corrective measures were implemented, recalls the magazine Maritime Executive.

The piers of the bridge were widened at their base. These islands with gentle underwater slopes are aimed at reducing the shock in the event of a collision.

In addition, upstream of these islands, there are cylindrical or ovoid concrete studs, called "dolphins", which are supposed to brake, or even stop or bring back into line a ship that has lost steering as it approaches the bridge. However, the implementation of this equipment is itself controversial. In the case of the Baltimore Bridge, the space between the piers is so small that they would be more of an extra factor of risk than a solution.

In the case of the Suez Canal, lessons have also been learned from the grounding of the Ever Given. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) announced an expansion and deepening of the section that had been paralysed by the incident. The first phase of the Southern Sector Development Project has been completed, the SCA announced in early March 2024.

3/ Understanding failures

It is now established that the Dali twice experienced a significant loss of power with a final sudden restart of the main engine just before the impact. The large plume of black smoke demonstrates the injection of a large amount of fuel that the engine did not have the ability to burn completely. The investigation will now have to determine the causes of the engine failure.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) took fuel samples as soon as it boarded to analyse whether this was a factor or not. It will also be decisive whether the malfunction of the machinery had not been caused by a switch between a very low-sulphur fuel used for navigation in the port and cheaper and more sulphurised fuel when approaching the open maritime zone.

In the context of the Ever Given, even if the weather conditions were unfavourable, the finger of blame has been pointed at human error. The report published by the Panama Maritime Authority, as the supervisory authority of the vessel that sailed under a Panamanian flag, criticises certain decisions of the captain and pilots present on board.

4/ Measuring the economic impact

The increase in the size of the vessels is guided by a desire to make economies of scale, aimed at reducing the operating cost per container. This strategy has undoubtedly worked. However, it has repercussions on the maritime and port ecosystem, which calls for a more comprehensive approach to the pros and cons. As such, adapting infrastructure requires heavy investments.

Incidents or accidents can have a very significant economic impact, in addition to taking a tragic toll in human lives. In the Dali accident, six victims lost their lives. The economic impact in the US remains moderate at the national level, but significant at the local one. The port remains open but maritime traffic has been interrupted until further notice. Automotive logistics, of which the Port of Baltimore is a major player, will be disrupted, but a ro-ro terminal at the port remains operational downstream of the bridge. Ford and General Motors have hinted that the impact will remain limited. And for most other traffic, workarounds exist. This is particularly the case for the container business, where other unsaturated ports can step in.

The major risk today remains the secondary accident, which is always a possibility when clearing debris from the deck and moving a heavily damaged ship. The risks of pollution and the safety of hazardous materials on board must also be taken into account. The delays announced at this stage for clearing debris from the deck and moving the ship range from one to four months. There is one silver lining though, the highly industrial zone in which the accident occurred is well-supplied in means of heavy rescue in the direct vicinity of the disaster, guaranteeing a rapid start to the operations of which coordination must be flawless, in view of the interests at stake.

In the case of the Ever Given, the impact on global container shipping had been much greater as 30% of global containerised traffic was paralysed for a week. The port of Baltimore, however, only handles 1.4% of global container traffic.

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Expert in Ocean shipping for 25 years, Jerome puts all his knowledge of the industry to contribution for Upply. Ship captain at heart, he has written the English-French Lexicon of Containerized Shipping (Paris: CELSE, 2001).
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