The Panama Canal has seen bigger box ships and high utilisation since the start of this year. Rebecca Moore spoke to one of its senior executives
The widening of the Panama Canal two years ago is yielding good results – larger box ships are using the trade route – and on the back of this the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is looking to grab more transpacific market share.
The Panama Canal hit a milestone on 3 March this year – the container ship MSC Caterina became the 3,000th neopanamax vessel to transit the canal as it travelled northbound from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. The 300 m long vessel has a capacity of 9,000 TEU.
“Today's milestone, achieved in less than two years of operation, serves as a proud reminder of the confidence that our customers and the broader maritime industry have placed in our route,” said Panama Canal Authority administrator, Jorge Luis Quijano.
Of the 3,000 vessels that have transited since the Panama Canal widened its locks, roughly 53% have been from the container segment.
The container segment in fiscal year 2017 (October 2016 – September 2017) continued to serve as the leading market segment of tonnage through the canal, accounting for 35.3% of the total cargo received. This equated to a total 143M tonnes, measured in the Panama Canal Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS), of which 89.1M tonnes transited the expanded canal. This is an increase compared to fiscal year 2016, when container vessels contributed 119.6M PC/UMS, including 13.4M PC/UMS that passed through the expanded canal.
ACP executive manager of the economic analysis and market research division, Silvia de Marucci told Container Shipping & Trade “The Panama Canal has had a very good year so far in line with what whole industry is experiencing. 2017 was the first full year of the new expanded Panama Canal, so after that jump the growth will be slightly less steep than between 2016 to 2017. But we think it will be very stable.”
She said this year ACP has seen new panamax vessels as some services have been upgraded, from vessels of around 8,000 TEU increasing to 10,000 TEU or 12,000 TEU.
She added that there had also been an improvement in container vessel utilisation this year – especially on the Asia to US east coast route – with ships achieving 90% utilisation. “This is high compared to last year and this is why we think that customers are moving upwards in terms of vessel size,” commented Ms de Marucci.
Indeed, following the expansion of the canal, Ms de Marucci said its area of influence had widened especially for the US market. “Before, we had a very narrow area on the US east coast in which we were competitive and where we competed with the intermodal system.” But now the canal’s business area goes further west in the US.
“Therefore, we have more opportunities to capture more market share, especially now the east coast ports are ready to receive larger vessels and working on their own connectivity,” commented Ms de Marucci.
ACP hopes to move ahead with plans to build a box ship terminal near Corozal after battling lawsuits – allowing it to become a major transhipment hub.
Its plans for the terminal were put on hold due to lawsuits filed against it, as some people believe the ACP does not have the authority to into enter the port business. But Ms de Marucci told Container Shipping & Trade “We have had lawsuits but are clearing these up and are almost at the final stage – we are planning to retake this project as soon as we are cleared [from the lawsuits]. There has been some misunderstanding in terms of what ACP can and cannot do.
“We are hoping sometime this year to go ahead with this project; it is in our interest to increase port capacity on the Pacific side.”
She added “We believe that it is necessary, we see the growth in terminals nearby – shipping companies need to have more transhipment on the Pacific. We believe that in future there will be more traditional transhipment coming our way and we expect to have some market share on that. The more services we can provide, the stronger our trade route becomes.”
She said that currently 60-70% of Panama Canal container ship customers carry out transhipment operations in local ports. “Especially with vessels increasing in size with fewer stops, we hope to be one of main stops to do all the transhipment that they need,” said Ms de Marucci, pointing out that it was not just about transiting the Panama Canal, but offering other services its customers could use, rather than going elsewhere.
ACP’s plan now is to review the terminal project.
Asked about terminal operator bids to operate the facility, Ms Marucci said “Last time we had a number of companies show interest, but our opinion is that because of the market situation at the time and waiting too long for public tender and because of the lawsuits ..., they were a bit scared to participate. So, we need to review the project, see what lessons we have learned in the process and do some modifications.” But eventually the plan is to go ahead and call for another public tender.
As well as the Corozal container terminal, ACP is looking at building a roll-on-roll-off terminal on the Pacific side of the canal, and is considering constructing an LNG terminal nearby.
Another area in which ACP is investing time is in trying to recapture services that travel one way, from US east coast to northeast Asia ports. ACP launched a lower rate per TEU in October last year to incentivise services to use the Panama Canal on this route. It will shortly be evaluating how effective this has been. “We want to attract services going to northeast Asia via the Suez Canal or the Cape of Good Hope as we believe this is our market due to price of transit and the space we can provide,” explained Ms de Marucci.
Another focus for ACP is to keep in close contact with customers to create more of a “just-in-time” system. This means that “vessels do not have to speed up and burn a lot of fuel if they do not need to transit so fast”. Ms de Marucci added “We have made some progress and worked very closely with customers.”
Asked about any challenges faced since the widening of the canal locks, Ms Marucci said “Just the normal growing pains to make sure that we handle our vessels properly. It has been a learning curve since we opened [the expanded canal] and our pilots and operations have become more efficient. We are also getting a handle on the larger neopanamax vessels.”
Silvia de Marucci (Panama Canal Authority)
Ms de Marucci joined the Panama Canal Authority in 1995 and developed a career in market research, specialising in the liquid bulk trade. In November 2013, she was appointed acting manager of the marketing and forecasting section, which was later renamed the economic analysis and market research division. She is currently responsible for developing tolls policies, evaluating the competitiveness of the route, generating short, medium and long-term forecasts, and evaluating the economic impact of the Panama Canal.
Previous experience includes workingas operations co-ordinator for South America for Samsung Latin America. From 1992 through 1994 Ms de Marucci was appointed economic advisor to the embassy of Japan in Panama, acting as liaison between Panamanian Government officials and the embassy.
In addition, Ms Marucci teaches maritime economics and administration at the University of Panama and at the International Maritime University of Panama, as well as other private universities in the Republic of Panama. She publishes papers in international professional forums such as the International Association of Maritime Economists (IAME) and technical magazines.
Panama Canal by numbers
Container ship market share of 3,000 neopanamax vessels that have transited the canal
Container ship market share for canal cargo volumes in fiscal year 2017
Size increase up from 8,000 TEU
Current Panama Canal box ship utilisation
Panama Canal customers that tranship in local ports