HHLA considers cutting capacity.
On a busy Friday afternoon at Hamburg"s sophisticated Altenwerder container terminal, remote-controlled vehicles scurry about the yard moving contaiers back and forth. Yet there is only one ship ? the Hyundai Splendor ? at the quay, rather than the two or three there would have been before container shipping"s most severe crisis hit in late 2008.
Container volumes handled by Hamburger Hafen und Logistik, the terminal"s operator, fell 33 per cent last year. The downturn has now become so serious that HHLA ? which is publicly listed but controlled by Hamburg"s state government ? is considering taking capacity out of use.
Stefan Behn, who runs HHLA"s container terminals, says the operator hopes temporarily to close Tollerort, its smallest terminal, and shift its volume to Burchardkai, its biggest. The move depends on union agreement and improving Burchardkai"s flexibility.
Hamburg"s move is the largest publicly under consideration, although Hong Kong"s Hutchison Ports, the biggest container terminal operator, has effectively taken its Amsterdam terminal out of use after it lost its only customer.
The tactic has never been seen before in container shipping"s 53-year history, according to Neil Davidson, ports analyst at Drewry Shipping Consultants based in London. Until 2009, the industry had never seen a year-on-year fall in worldwide container volumes.
?Operators have never had the need,? Mr Davidson says. ?Before, trying to add more terminals rather than trying to cut them back was the issue.?
Mr Behn likens the tactic to laying a ship up when market conditions prevent the vessel covering its operating costs. ?We are thinking about closing Tollerort, a little bit like a lay-up,? he says.
The need to consider such tactics has come as a shock after years of trying to keep up with China"s export boom. ?Until 2008, our game was always productivity and reliability,? he says.
However, HHLA, as the main terminal operator in Hamburg, Europe"s second-busiest container port, has been hit hard by what used to be its main strength ? its handling of Germany"s exports. Shipping lines tend to favour ports with balanced imports and exports, because it reduces the number of empty container movements.
HHLA has been hit both by Germany"s export slump and falling demand for the Baltic forest products it handles, Mr Behn says.
He insists, nevertheless, that Hamburg"s position well down the River Elbe remains its key strength. It remains closest to some of Europe"s inland industrial and consumer areas.
?I think traffic will come back in the future because the geographical position of Hamburg has not changed,? he explains.