Sunday 24 June 2012

40 years of container shipping

Launch of then-controversial mode of shipping was milestone for Singapore
By Alvin Foo, The Straits Times, 23 Jun 2012

IT HAPPENED 40 years ago, but PSA Corp operations supervisor Martin Verghese, 68, still remembers the day vividly.

It was June 23, 1972, and Singapore was about to welcome the first all-container ship to its port.

Mr Verghese was on edge: He was among the initial batch of crane operators who would be unloading the vessel at PSA's new Tanjong Pagar Terminal.

He said: 'Everybody was eagerly awaiting the ship's arrival - the mood was tense. It was a significant milestone for Singapore.'

The MV Nihon had made its maiden voyage with 300 containers from Rotterdam to Singapore non-stop to be on time for the opening of the new port.

Captain Mervin Lewis, the senior PSA pilot who guided the MV Nihon into Singapore, recalled: 'We realised that something special was taking place that day - we had a glimpse of the future.'

Fast forward to today - the 40th anniversary of container shipping - and more than 404 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers have been handled in Singapore. Placed end to end, they would span the distance from Earth to the Moon more than 6.4 times.

The idea of container shipping came from American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean, when he was watching dock workers manually load cotton onto vessels.

As he recalled in his memoirs: 'Suddenly, the idea came to me. Wouldn't it be great if my trailer could simply be lifted up and placed on the ship without the contents being touched?'

Initially, converted truck trailers were used, evolving into today's containers, known as TEUs.

PSA International group chairman Fock Siew Wah told The Straits Times: 'The celebration reminds us of the transformational effect of a bold decision taken more than 40 years ago.'

He was referring to the decision of then PSA chairman Howe Yoon Chong to build Singapore's first container berth, which became operational in 1972.

Constructing a container port was controversial in the 1960s, as shipping experts were sceptical of the demand, and no container ship operator had made a commitment to building such vessels for the Europe-Far East run. But today, Mr Fock said: 'Singapore is a leading global container hub port and the pride of our nation, fulfilling its vital role of facilitating world commerce and trade.'

It did not take Singapore too long to make its mark.

Business was slow in the 1970s, but trade rose in the 1980s.

In 1982, Singapore achieved one million TEUs in a single year for the first time, and became the world's busiest port by shipping tonnage. In 1990, it exceeded five million TEUs and became the world's busiest container port for the first time, in terms of TEUs handled. By 2000, it was handling 17 million TEUs a year.

Last year, volumes reached over 29 million TEUs, making Singapore the world's second-busiest container port after Shanghai.

Along the way, home-grown technology has given Singapore an edge over its regional rivals.

The innovations include Portnet, a one-stop 24-hour paperless electronic link for the port and shipping community, introduced in 1984. Another is Citos, a planning system that coordinates and integrates all PSA port operations.

The accolades have been numerous, with PSA clinching Best Container Terminal in Asia for 23 years at the annual Asian Freight & Supply Chain Awards.

Economists note that container shipping has become a highly significant part of Singapore's economy and the backbone of the maritime sector in the region.

CIMB regional economist Song Seng Wun said: 'Despite pressure coming from other ports, Singapore will still be important as a key regional player. That's unlikely to change in the near term.

'The business will still expand as consumption and two-way trade is growing in this region. The only question is space and capacity constraints.'

But Singapore is not resting on its laurels.

Two new phases of the Pasir Panjang Terminal are being developed to boost handling capacity to 50 million TEUs by 2018. PSA is also working on automated guided vehicles for future container terminals - to reduce manpower and improve port productivity.

1968: Singapore begins building three container berths at East Lagoon (Tanjong Pagar Terminal).

1972: Arrival of the MV Nihon, Singapore's first container ship on June 23. Operations begin at first container berth.

1982: Achieves one million twenty-foot equivalent units of containers (TEUs) in a single year. Singapore becomes the world's busiest port by shipping tonnage.

1984: Introduces the first version of Portnet, a one-stop 24-hour paperless electronic link with local port and shipping community.

1987: Widening and dredging of terminal to allow simultaneous departure and arrival of container ships.

1988: Implements Citos, a proprietary planning system to co-ordinate and integrate PSA's entire port operations.

1990: Passes five million TEUs a year mark to become world's busiest container port for the first time.

1991: Keppel Terminal starts operation following reorganisation of the original Tanjong Pagar Terminal into Keppel and Tanjong Pagar terminals.

1994: Achieves 10 million TEUs in a single year.

1997: PSA corporatises and renamed PSA Corporation Limited. Hits record of 100 million TEUs handled since start of container operations.

2000: Pasir Panjang Terminal officially opens.

2003: PSA International Private Limited becomes the main holding company for the PSA Group. Officially launches Cosco-PSA Terminal at Pasir Panjang Terminal.

2004: Achieves 20 million TEUs in a single year. Total container volume crosses 200 million TEUs.

2005: Enters into a joint venture with Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) to jointly manage and operate a container terminal for MSC at Pasir Panjang Terminal.

2006: MSC-PSA Asia Terminal officially opens. Emma Maersk, the world's largest container ship with a nominal capacity of 15,550 TEUs, calls at Pasir Panjang Terminal.

2007: Enters into a joint venture with NYK and 'K' Line to operate Singapore's first dedicated car terminal called Asia Automobile Terminal (Singapore) (AATS) at Pasir Panjang Terminal.

2008: Enters into a joint venture with PIL to operate a dedicated container terminal called PIL-PSA Singapore Terminal at Keppel Terminal.

2009: Pasir Panjang Automobile Terminal, which houses AATS, starts work.

2011: Container volume handled exceeds 400 million TEUs, hitting more than 29 million TEUs in 2011 alone.

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