A fleet of behemoths are on their way to Europe, container ships so large – almost a quarter-mile long, wider than a motorway and taller than a 20-storey office block– that ports are having to undergo radical surgery in order to accommodate them. The new Triple E ships, which will come into service this summer, will be able to carry 18,000 6.1-metre (20ft) containers, known as TEUs – three times as many as the biggest container ships 15 years ago.
When US businessman Malcolm McLean invented the idea of carrying goods in metal boxes in the 1950s his first vessel, a converted second world war oil tanker the Ideal X, carried just 58 containers. Today, if all the containers on a Triple E were stacked on top of each other they would touch the stratosphere – 29 miles above the earth. If they were unloaded on to a single train it would need to be 68 miles long. Inside, you could squeeze in 36,000 cars.
Because they’re so vast the Triple Es – which stands for economy of scale, energy efficiency and environmentally improved – will be able to move goods more cheaply and efficiently than current ships. But, they will be far too big for most of the world’s ports. No port in North or South America is currently able to take the vessels, nor the Panama canal locks – designed for the last generation of container ships – which are due to open next year. The Triple Es will just about squeeze through the Suez canal, and will ply only the China to Europe route, bringing in goods and returning with cargoes of scrap metal and plastic waste for recycling – but mostly empty.
Only a handful of European ports, including Felixstowe and Southampton in the UK, are equipped to handle the behemoths. Those that cannot are investing hundreds of millions to make sure they can.
The UK is building a £1.5bn port 20 miles east of London’s original ports. London Gateway, which is being bankrolled by Dubai’s DP World, has just installed the first of 24 138-metre high cranes designed specifically to reach up and across the Triple Es’ vast deck of containers.
London Gateway, which is due to open before the end of the year, is Britain’s biggest construction project after Crossrail, employing 2,500 workers. The government hopes the port will support 36,000 jobs.
Andrew Bowen, the project’s director of engineering, said the port will be able to handle seven Triple Es at the same time.