Reefer Container Ship Fleet in Growth Mode

The specialised reefer fleet is shrinking and shows no signs of reversing in the future; however, the reefer container ship fleet has increased by 15% year-on-year and is set to grow 20% by 2018, according to Drewry’s latest Reefer Shipping Market Annual Review & Forecast.

Consequently, with a capacity-restricted specialised fleet, there is no alternative but for cargo to be shipped by reefer container ship – a trend that is accelerating with continued cargo growth. Seaborne reefer cargo grew 4.9% in 2014, all of which, and more, was carried by the reefer container ship mode of transport.

Despite the significant increase in reefer container ship capacity, cargo growth is also forecast to be strong. This will leave utilisation levels on the reefer container ship fleet virtually unchanged over the next few years at 20.4 to 20.6 cargo tonnes per ‘000 cubic feet equivalent of reefer container capacity.

To ensure that container ship operators remain competitive where super-slow and ultra-slow steaming has become common-place (as well as lengthy voyage times and trans-shipment services), many container carriers are focusing on reefer-intensive services to compete with the specialised mode, Drewry says.

”The specialised reefer fleet has an average age of 25 years,” said report editor Kevin Harding.

”With little likelihood of new buildings, in the large size range at least, ongoing recycling is inevitable, as is a shrinking fleet. However, the container ship order book is substantial and is expected to remain so.”

Notwithstanding these developments, specialised reefer operator Seatrade is investing in a new building programme of fully containerised reefer vessels, seeking to differentiate itself from the liner container carriers with shorter transit times, direct routings and reefer-dedicated box shipping services.

The company has firm orders for six vessels of between 500 and 700 FEU of reefer capacity, and options for a further six. Whether other specialised reefer operators follow suit remains to be seen.

Despite the fleet changes for both modes of transport, cargo flows are forecast to continue to increase and therefore to weather any economic or climatic difficulties, at least on a global basis, although this will be tested in 2015/16 with the anticipated El Niño.

”Overall utilisation levels are forecast to be relatively stable, although undoubtedly there will continue to be strong competition between the modes at a trade lane level,” said Harding.