Consequences of COVID pandemic affect Port of Hamburg’s 2020 throughput

Seaborne cargo throughput in the Port of Hamburg performed better than expected in the fourth quarter of 2020. The upward trend has been noticeable since the third quarter. Seaborne cargo throughput in the fourth quarter was even around 3% higher than in the same quarter the year before. Container throughput was just 1.2% lower year over year. However, total throughput in 2020 amounted to 126.3 million tons, 7.6% below the high total of 136.6 million tons reached in the previous year.

The coronavirus pandemic was felt worldwide and had particularly serious effects on the Port of Hamburg in the first half of 2020. “The first six months were notable for reduced activity in many areas of the economy, weaker consumer demand, and a reduction in liner service sailings. In Hamburg, this caused a double-digit downturn in throughput. We are delighted that the second half brought a turnaround, with the total throughput in 2020 showing only a single-digit minus,” explained Axel Mattern, Joint CEO of Port of Hamburg Marketing (HHM).

For Ingo Egloff, Axel Mattern’s Executive Board colleague, 2020 represented a special challenge for the entire port. “A tremendous combined effort enabled the port together with its terminals, logistics and service providers, and its transport connections with the hinterland to remain fully operational over the whole period. My thanks go to all those who, despite difficult conditions, perform their work with great commitment 24/7 in the Port of Hamburg and along the worldwide transport chains. Ship’s crews, skilled staff in the handling and logistics sector, pilots, and all others employed in the companies, public sector, and other organizations involved in the port industry make a valuable contribution to securing supplies for the people and the economy every day,” Egloff stressed.

In 2020 as a whole, 126.3 million tons of seaborne cargo were loaded or discharged at terminals in the Port of Hamburg. That represents a 7.6% downturn from the previous year’s excellent total. Both general cargo, down 7.9% at 87.8 million tons, and bulk cargo, 6.7% lower at 38.5 million tons, were affected. In container handling, the 2020 total of 8.5 million TEU (20-ft standard containers) was 7.9% below the previous year’s volume. “It is interesting that in Hamburg on the whole, imports, 7.8% lower at 4.4 million TEU, and exports, down 8.2% at 4.2 million TEU, showed similar developments. The sharp decline in imports from Asia in the first half of the year was one reason for this. The very stable trend in landside hinterland traffic is also notable, decreasing only 5.8%. At 11.6%, the downturn in transhipment handling was steeper,” Mattern said.

Within the bulk cargo segment, agribulk developed positively, totalling 7.5 million tons and increasing by 19.7%. Grain export was the main factor behind this growth. Up 198.6% to 2.2 million tons, this contributed to excellent overall results in agribulk. Another factor was the 6.8% growth in oilseed imports, which accounted for 3.2 million tons of cargo.

Decreases in steel output and coal-fired power generation led to downturns in imports of coal/coke, 35% lower at 4.7 million tons, and ore, 4.4% lower at 9.5 million tons. All in all, 19.4 million tons of grabber cargo were handled in Hamburg, representing a 13.2% drop.

Throughput of liquid bulk cargo in 2020 was 8.4% lower at 11.6 million tons, mostly due to lower imports of oil products and other liquids. A 15.7% growth rate for exports in the category “other liquid cargoes,” among them biofuels, could not fully offset this downturn.

Developments in container shipping with the Port of Hamburg’s ten most important trading partners varied a great deal in 2020. Particularly the 8.2%  decline in seaborne container throughput for China, Hamburg’s top trading partner by far, could not be offset by positive development in trade with other regions. Furthermore, along with China some other countries also showed significant losses. Throughput for Russia decreased by 12.7%, for Sweden 8.6%, for South Korea 10.4%, and for Brazil 11.1%, while throughput with Poland was 7.3% lower.

Among the Port of Hamburg’s Top Ten trading partners for container traffic that achieved growth were the USA (up 1.8%), Singapore (up 5.3%), the United Kingdom (up 28.2%), and Malaysia (up 6%). The USA ranks second for container traffic in Hamburg and reached a new record of 591,000 TEU in 2020. “The ongoing positive trend in container shipping to and from the USA is surprising, particularly against the background of the negative effects of the coronavirus on economic output and the falling demand there. The positive trend in container shipping for the United Kingdom, reaching a new record of 266,000 TEU, is due to an upturn in shipments for the German market and increased deliveries to the UK pre-Brexit,” Ingo Egloff explained.

In 2020 Hamburg’s seaport-hinterland transport by rail accounted for a volume of 46.6 million tons and 2.6 million TEU, remaining fairly stable. The 4.4% decrease in containers transported by rail was considerably smaller than the drop in container throughput as a whole. “In terms of volume, 2020 was the third-best year, and in terms of the number of containers carried it was the second-best year in the history of the Hamburg Port Railway,” Mattern said. The railway was even able to increase its share of the modal split in seaport-hinterland traffic by 1.3% to 50.7%.

Axel Mattern pointed out that both the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) and companies in the port made use of the year to expand and modernize infrastructure and handling facilities further and to equip them with the latest technology. Terminal operators HHLA and EUROGATE, for example, invested in additional container gantry cranes for their Waltershof handling facilities. Hamburg’s container terminals are thus ideally equipped to handle the mega-containerships, which can now reach the port more easily. “Late, but not too late, the fairway adjustment, which is crucial for Hamburg, has cleared the final hurdle. The trend towards larger vessels is continuing, as discussions with shipping lines have confirmed, and the now completed passing box in the channel slightly before Hamburg now permits mega-ships to pass on the Elbe. That is an excellent signal for our port customers,” says Jens Meier, CEO of HPA.

Michael Westhagemann, Hamburg’s Senator for Economics and Innovation: “In 2021 we will also be completing the fairway adjustment of the Lower and Outer Elbe. This is an important and necessary signal for the port’s international customers and an indispensable prerequisite to be able continue playing in the league of the major European ports. The Port of Hamburg is one of the most important economic factors for all of Northern Germany and as a hub for international trade it plays a highly important role in the entire German economic system. Thus the port makes a significant and ongoing contribution to prosperity, locally and well beyond the greater metropolitan region.”

The HHM board also views other higher-level measures, such as the suspension of transit dues for the Kiel Canal and the first land-based power supply for containerships in a European port, subsidized by the German government, as very positive signs. In Mattern’s view, such measures help to make the port fit for the future and to achieve climate protection goals. He is also convinced that inland waterway and port shipping will profit from the expansion of shore-side power supply. In addition, importers benefit from a new legal regulation since December 2020. “As we see it, the liquidity effect of changes in import turnover tax is also among the positive wider measures. This arises from the deferment of the payment date for Import VAT and makes channelling imports via German ports more attractive. That is an important step in the right direction,” said Mattern.

The Port of Hamburg’s marketing organisation anticipates a generally more stable trend in seaborne cargo throughput in 2021. With the resumption of suspended liner sailings and additional new services, throughput of 130 million tons and 8.7 million TEU should be attainable in what we hope will be an improving global situation.