Interview: Port of Amsterdam’s New Sea Lock Will Open a Door of Opportunities

The Port of Amsterdam is about to embark on a major journey as preparations for the construction of the new IJmuiden sea lock, located at the entrance to the North Sea Canal, gear up. The construction tender has been awarded to the Consortium OpenIJ, consisting of BAM-PGGM and Volker Wessels-DIF, which will be responsible for the design, construction, financing and maintenance of the new lock for a period of 26 years. This new lock will be the biggest sea lock in the world.

As World Maritime News reported last week, the European Investment Bank (EIB) has assigned EUR 165 million (USD 187.5m) to support the construction of the new sea lock at IJmuiden.

The new, larger lock system is aimed at improving the accessibility of the port, offering space for the ever growing ships independent of the tidal levels.

World Maritime News spoke with Anthony van der Hoest, Cluster Manager for Logistics at the Port of Amsterdam, at the recently held Offshore Energy Exhibition and Conference in Amsterdam about the new lock and its impact on the port’s future business operation.

WMN: In terms of the current developments at the port, what is the status of the preparations for the construction of the new sea lock?

Van der Hoest: The contract for the construction has been awarded and the preparatory work is underway. The very construction works will start as planned in March 2016. Obviously, the project is extremely important for us as it would be our front door and it will enable us to accommodate the ever bigger ships of today. The 15,000 TEU Triple E container ship Emma Maersk has been used as the design vessel for the new lock, which will be 500 meters long, 70 meters wide and 18 meters deep. Therefore, the preparations are on track.

WMN: What will the new sea lock mean for the port?

Van der Hoest: The new sea lock will allow us to approach markets which are out of our reach to a certain extent at the moment, and that includes both container shipping and offshore energy related projects. For example, certain pontoons currently being used for decommissioning are bigger than what we can fit through the lock. At the moment, we are bound by a maximum 45-meter width that also limits our possibilities to get really involved in, for example, the decommissioning of really big platforms, because the pontoons used by Allseas and different similar companies are bigger than our width can fit. But together with the Port of Ijmuiden we are able to approach more markets. Therefore, we are cooperating to attract more business in the offshore projects.

With respect to the container business, we have a completely new outlook with regard to the big carriers, as the new lock would bring a huge capacity increase in the area.

WMN: Does this mean that you will be able to compete with the Port of Rotterdam in terms of capacity?

Van der Hoest: In terms of the ships that can pass through the lock, definitely yes. However, we do not have the same terminal capacity as Rotterdam, as huge terminals have been built and are still being built at the port. But for certain niche carriers or single carriers, we could be an attractive alternative.

WMN: In terms of expansion, are there any plans for constructing bigger terminals at the port of Amsterdam?

Van der Hoest: If you look at the energy sector, at the moment we have quite a lot of terminals and the capacity to grow at the existing terminals. This applies to general cargo terminals as well. We are investing at the moment in the expansion of capacity for agribulk, and we are also planning to develop a new ‘all weather’ terminal, the fourth one at the port. In addition, we are looking at developing capacity outside of the lock together with the IJmuiden Port and Tata Steel as this has to be done for lightering of vessels in any case.

WMN: What are the new markets you would like to target once the new lock is completed?

Van der Hoest: One area of expansion is offshore. We have recently welcomed Conquest Offshore’s heavy lift crane barge, the Conquest MB1, to the port, and this is very important, especially since we didn’t have a heavy crane vessel of such capacity. What we are looking at now is the role which we can play in the offshore wind. If you look at the project developments in the North Sea, our location is excellent. We are keen to attract that business to the Port of Amsterdam, and this could be done in cooperation with the Port of IJmuiden.

That is why we are exhibiting at the Offshore Energy Exhibition and Conference together. We are also keen on developing what we call the logistics cluster, meaning anything that deals with breakbulk, general cargo, etc. Obviously, it is a very competitive market, but we think that we have the terminals tailored to accommodate the demands of that kind of business. In addition, we should not forget the segments we are strong in, namely energy products: coal, diesel, kerosene and also biomass, seeing that waste is becoming a commodity.

WMN: What is the key challenge at the moment with regard to the construction of the lock?

Van der Hoest: We as a port are working hard to convince the clients to change their mindset. For example, this applies to operators of big jack-up vessels who believe that the lock is a risk. Namely, the vessel operators are weary of cases when the lock might be closed and what would happen in those cases. However, we have rarely had any malfunctions at the existing locks. But even when such instances do occur, they are resolved in a couple of hours, therefore the risk is very small. Hence, it is the mindset and the risk-perspective that we are trying to change now, stressing particularly to the operators of jack-up vessels that the Port of Amsterdam is a viable option for them. The lock is not to be considered a hurdle or something bad, but quite the opposite, it offers a window of opportunities.

It is also important for the cruise business, which is experiencing significant growth, that we build the new lock, as cruise ships are getting bigger as well. The demand for the cruise industry at the port is very big, as sometimes we have to accommodate two cruise ships at a time at the port area. In conclusion, we believe the new lock is crucial because there is a need to accommodate more and bigger ships at the port.

WMN: There was recently an announcement in the media that the state is planning to take a stake in the port of Amsterdam. If this takes place, what would that mean for the port in terms of investment?

Van der Hoest: We have also heard the rumors and we can judge based on what has happened in the Port of Rotterdam, when the state took a 30 per cent stake in the port. I can imagine that the state is keen on having a share in the port of Amsterdam as well. In my opinion, it could be of interest to have the national government involved as a shareholder like it is the case in the port of Rotterdam and create an equal playing field for us on a shareholding level. However, the decision depends on the current shareholder as well, namely the City of Amsterdam.

WMN: Looking back at the overall business operation at the port, how would you assess the results for 2015?

Van der Hoest: If you look at the port as a whole, I think the year until now has been good again. As you may now, we are especially strong in the energy sector this year. We have seen growth overall at least in the first two quarters again this year. In that respect, it looks like 2015 will be a promising year again.

WMN: Has the port been affected by the downturn in the dry bulk shipping industry?

Van der Hoest: With respect to the bulk cargo, the first two quarters were really good, especially if you look at the energy products. The third quarter also looks better compared to previous figures. All in all, the overall volumes are still growing. In break bulk, the market is difficult and very competitive. In our region, the Port of Antwerp was leading the way for quite some time, but other ports are also becoming ever more active. We are an alternative to Antwerp, but we are well aware of the Antwerp’s size and that we have to be the best in order to replace them.

WMN: Antwerp has been very busy in introducing liquefied natural gas (LNG) as bunker fuel at the port. Is the port of Amsterdam planning to venture into LNG bunkering sector?

Van der Hoest: We are definitely looking into that. The port has recently opened an LNG fuel station for trucks. However, for the time being, we have not planned anything on our own yet.

Jasmina Ovcina Mandra