Berth of the Blues

Katherine Yung of The Dallas Morning News had some very interesting observations about megaships over the weekend. She described the size, the amenities and the operational capabilities of one of the newest to call at the Port of Long Beach, the MSC Texas, and her report requires thoughtful consideration by American consumers. “In the next few years, all these ports will be overrun by these ships,” said Capt. Axel Bartel, of the MSC Texas, as he watched containers being unloaded from his vessel. The MSC Texas is just 36 feet shorter than the 1132-foot-long QM2, the world’s largest cruise ship, and was designed to carry 8,238 TEUs. Bigger is better, so they say, and megaships are being built in order to generate greater profits for the shipowners. The more containers carried, the lower the cost to transport each one. These behemoths operate with the same size crew, 23 seamen, and at the same speed, 25 knots, as their less imposing brethren, but megaships like the MSC Texas also boast creature comforts for the crew, like gourmet chefs, fresh-water swimming pools and saunas, weight rooms, ping-pong tables, and even a pharmacy.

That would all be well if the shipowners were footing the bills. But they’re not. As Ms. Yung reports, there are some drawbacks that are not generally considered:
• Ships of this size consume 20 tons more fuel per day than the next-biggest carriers. [There are about 44,000 gallons of diesel fuel in 20 metric tons, and if, “In the next few years, all these ports will be overrun by these ships”, each wasting more than a million gallons of diesel each year, what kind of an effect will this reckless squandering have upon the cost of fuel at the pumps, do you suppose? Do the math and pity the poor truckers.]
• It takes 15 to 20 minutes to bring a ship of this size to a standstill, which adds almost half an hour to every maneuver.
• These giant ships can only be brought into port during daylight and when the wind falls below 10 knots.
• Only three U.S. ports can handle them — Long Beach, Oakland and Seattle.
• They can’t even fit into the Panama Canal.
• They take four to five days to unload, instead of two to three.
• They require the use of taller, bigger and more expensive cranes than those found in most ports.
• They require longer berths than those found in most ports.
• They force major railroads to make adjustments, such as running longer trains on nonstop routes across the West.
• And if “In the next few years, all these ports will be overrun by these ships”, enormous amounts of funding will be required for dredging, berth expansion, equipment upgrading, bridge and highway replacement projects, and so on and so forth.

Will the shipowners provide this funding? Of course not. U.S. taxpayers and consumers will. But if more containers per ship lower the cost to transport each container, and generate higher profits for the shipowner as a result, why can’t U.S. consumers share in this cost saving instead of facing steadily increasing costs? [Darn it all! We’re so gullible!]