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Business

Ready for big ships, German port waits for cargo

The newly opened JadeWeserPort is the only port in Germany that can handle the giant container ships of the future. But it has not been easy, and other ports fear the potential competition.

To say they're huge would be an understatement.

At 430 meters (1,410 feet) long - more than three and a half football fields - these ships are massive. A single ship can carry up to 14,000 containers of cargo.

Though still under construction, by this time next year the first of these marine mammoths is expected to plow through the oceans, according to forecasts. By the end of 2014, up to 250 of the ships could travel between Europe and the Asia on a regular basis.

Until now, Rotterdam was the only port equipped to handle ships of this size. But that changed Friday (09.21.2012) when the JadeWeserPort (JWP) opened in Wilhelmshaven after four years of construction. It's Germany's harbor capable of unloading the ships regardless of tide levels.

The easternmost deepwater port in northern Germany, JWP workers have been rehearsing procedures for accommodating the massive ships since mid-June. Eurogate, which also runs terminals in Hamburg and Bremerhaven, has unloaded boxes and coordinated transportation to make sure the operation runs efficiently when the first ships arrive.

Shipping's 'crisis'

The project has cost nearly 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion). Since construction began in March 2008, nearly unfathomable quantities of sand have been dredged out of Jade Bay. A 130-hectare (321-acre) container terminal was built alongside a 160-hectare freight center. The docks stretch for nearly two kilometers (1.25 miles).

"We had to destroy nearly 4,000 weapons from World War II," Axel Kluth, managing director of JadeWeserPort Realisierungsgesellschaft, told DW. According to Kluth, some of the weapons included unexploded ordnance dumped in the water, as well as live ammunition.

"It was difficult and not without risk," he said.

JadeWeserPort seen fron the air

The huge size of JadeWeserPort only becomes apparent when seen from the air

But the biggest setback was not related to dangerous wartime relics, it was the more than 300 cracks found in the quay wall that had to be repaired.

Additionally, JWP is a massive project that finished at a time when the shipping industry is struggling under over-capacity since a poor overall economic situation means fewer goods need to be transported across the seas.

"We have a crisis," said Burkhard Lemper, director of the Bremen Institute of Shipping Economics and Logistics. "Growth rates in container shipping were particularly negative in 2009. At the moment, in terms of the expected amount of growth [in the industry], we are somewhat behind schedule."

But Lemper said he does not think the data means construction of the JWP was ill-advised.

"That does not mean this port is useless," he said. "It just might be a little early."

Competition with other ports

Quayside at JWP, container cranes rise 126 meters in the air. The world's largest, these cranes will help handle 2.7 million standard-sized containers annually. While that may seem like a lot, it's not. In Hamburg alone, up to 12 million containers are handled each year. Despite being dwarfed by the city-state, could a competition be brewing?

"JadeWeserPort has always been planned as a supplement to the existing German ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven," said Lemper.

He added that it made little economic sense to rely solely on one mega-port like Hamburg.

"A concentration of traffic volume means an additional burden of infrastructure, additional storage effects and longer trips to remote areas," he said. "It makes sense [to have another port]. It opens up the transport market in Germany from several points."

Containers in the Port of Hamburg

Though the Port of Hamburg will still handle more containers, JadeWeserPort can handle bigger ships

That means Hamburg needn't worry about its port's future. Hamburg also has the advantage of serving as the European headquarters for many major shipping companies and importers, said Emanuel Schiffer, a member of the board of container handling company Eurogate.

"No on is going to up and move to Wihelmshaven," he said.

Others disagree with Schiffer to an extent.

"For us, JadeWeserPort is, of course, an additional competitor," said Bengt van Beuningen, a spokesperson for the Port of Hamburg Marketing, a private association that manages marketing activities for the Port of Hamburg, but he added that because of the focus on very large ships at JWP, it should not pose a fundamental threat to Hamburg.

But JWP does have advantages Hamburg does not, not just in the size of the ships it can accommodate.

"Wilhelmshaven has the advantage of a better location for the Baltic Sea region and parts of the German and eastern European countryside," the Bremen Institute's Lemper told DW.

Waiting for customers

Although JWP is now open, there is still work to be done. While the roadway accessing the port has been built, the connection to the railway link still needs to be finished. There are also plenty of open spaces in the sprawling logistics zone, and grounds near the roadway could use cultivation. All this is normal for a new port, explained Kluth.

"The launch of the port means we are entering a new phase," said JWP Logistics Zone Managing Director Jan Miller. "The business decision to setup a base here won't be made until the cargo arrives on the quay and the yard fill up with action."

Kluth also said he expects full capacity in five to ten years.

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