Reading aloud Container shipping is one of the flagship sectors of the German economy. But it reaches its limits: traffic jams and long lay times slow down the giant pots.

Always bigger, higher, farther - the old Babylonians wanted that. Over 2, 500 years ago, they tried to build the tallest tower in humanity that mankind had ever seen. But the Tower of Babel could never be completed, because suddenly every worker spoke a different language, and the colleagues could not communicate with each other. Divine wrath had punished the inhabitants of the ancient city for their megalomania. Today, there is a new Babylonian confusion of tongues - where it's all about building bigger and bigger, building up and getting further: the container ships, the showpieces of globalization.

The currency of this globalization is about 6 meters long, 2.30 meters wide and just as high - it's called TEU. The abbreviation stands for "Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit", in German: 20-foot container. Several million of these standardized containers are hauling daily into the ports of the world - laden with Chinese sneakers, Colombian bananas or Ethiopian coffee. They want to be loaded, reloaded and transported on. In no other industry do so many highly specialized professionals participate in creating a box from one place to another. And in no other working environment do dockers, boaters, shipowners, charterers, seamen, captains, fund managers and port logisticians speak languages ​​as different as in the big single box business.

Only since China, as the world's driving force, has been waiting in front of the merchant ships, container shipping is booming. Well, in Germany, the order books of the shipyards swell over, shipping companies still secure the last pots, and sprout everywhere new charter companies like mushrooms from the ground. The German container fleet grew in 2006 to 1280 ships. It is the largest in the world. The workers in the Port of Hamburg handled 8.9 million standard containers last year - around ten percent more than in the previous year. But the figures are deceptive about a huge problem: Also on the quayside in the land of logistics world champions, the experts are struggling with the pitfalls of their profession. The ever-expanding steel colossi of container ships are now damaging the Elbe like a camel caravan - if they are allowed to enter the river at all and do not have to anchor at Helgoland.

The reason for the traffic jam: Other giant pots block the container terminal Altenwerder, their docking station in the port of Hamburg. For the shipowners, the culprits are stuck in this blockade: the slow dockers. Those in turn complain about the tightness on board and the inability of the ship's engineers to build envelope-friendly ships. display

But the ship's engineers are building exactly the ships that shipowners or shipowners order from their shipyard. "There are too many groups involved in the container industry - and they have a major communication problem, " says Felix Fliege from the Institute of Maritime Engineering and Maritime Traffic at the Technical University of Berlin. And the participants think in completely different directions: "As a shipbuilder, you prefer technical solutions and want to build a better ship in case of problems - only then you focus on economic issues. The shipowner, on the other hand, is the other way around, "explains Fliege.

Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd, for example, only knows one answer to the slow-moving port industry: "Leaving, " says Klaus Heims, spokesman for the largest German shipping company, which is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. "It's up to the terminal to boost productivity, " he adds. If the envelope takes too long, you just have to look for another port. However, efficiently operating ports have become scarce since the beginning of the Chinese economic miracle. In Rotterdam, Antwerp and Southampton, a ship is no longer in port for two or three days, as it was a few years ago, but often ten days or more. For a shipping company or a charter company that has chartered, ie rented, a ship, this will incur additional costs of several hundred thousand euros.

German shipowners, who have chartered many of their ships, therefore, like many of their foreign counterparts, set one speed record after sea transport: to make up for the time lag in the harbor and still deliver the latest overseas sneakers punctually to shippers and their customers to be able to. While doing so, they are gaining a cheaper queue in front of the port, but the blockade will not be resolved - and operating costs will continue to rise. The world's largest shipping company Mærsk complains for 2006, due to the high energy costs, a 22 percent lower annual profit: The net profit of the Danish company fell from 3.4 in 2005 to 2.6 billion US dollars - despite the flourishing container trade.

In a survey conducted by the Munich-based HypoVereinsbank at the beginning of 2007, almost all surveyed German shipping companies stated that they would want to throttle their ships on overseas routes from 25 to 21 knots in the foreseeable future - equivalent to 39 kilometers per hour. This saved over $ 25, 000 a day. "One more node leads to an increase of 13 percent in fuel costs, " calculates the Berlin shipping expert fly.

In order to cover the costly, because long port stay, many ship owners put meanwhile on another strategy: They want to take as many containers as possible. This will save you harbor fees. Because they are due at each terminal start and truly voluminous: "The port measured the mooring fees of a ship according to the gross tonnage and not after the displacement in the water, " said Lutz Müller, head of the Department of Ship New Construction at Germanischer Lloyd, the German "ship TÜV.", This means that the fees are based not on the container carrying capacity of a ship, but on the size of the ship's belly, ie on the volume below deck. How many thousands of 22-ton crates are stacked on deck, on the other hand, for the amount of fees is not relevant.

Under these circumstances, even the most gigantic mega-freighters were born - the ships of the "Post-Panamax-class", which would stick with their 32 meters wide and over 5000 TEU in the Panama Canal. Currently the largest container ship is 56.40 meters wide and 397.70 meters long: According to their shipping company, the "Emma Mærsk" can sail around the globe with 11, 000 containers. Experts estimate that the number of containers that can be stacked on the giant rail can even be more than 13, 000. Ships of this size are increasingly bearing the name Supermax or Suezmax, or simply Very Large Containers Ship (very large container ship). They all have one thing in common: they are a terrible thing for dockers. The thousands upon thousands of crates on board complicate the handling of the goods.

"Shipowners want to squeeze more and more containers into their ship, " criticized Horst Linde, professor at the Department of Fly at the TU Berlin. It is not the amount of containers that is problematic, Linde emphasizes, but their arrangement: Below deck, the boxes are next to each other and packed tightly together in a kind of cell grid. The crane bridge driver sits 40 meters above the water and with his gripper arm, the spreader, has to lift each container into its drawer. The crane giant manages 45 containers per hour theoretically. In practice, there are at most 30. "There is almost no introduction tolerance", Linde criticizes. The crane bridge driver needs a lot of experience, an enormous sense of touch and stamina, if he does not want to damage the cell edges, because he simply does not see anything from up there. "This costs time.

The same problem prevails on deck. Like building blocks in a building set, the container stacks, sometimes eight to nine layers high, are pressed between the ship's superstructure: When a container hits the crew's quarters or something else, it comes right away Damage, "says Linde. Should you rebuild the ship and increase the distances? Colleague Fly finds this idea and knows how to boost its implementation: It is up to the ports to shape their fee policy. They are free to reduce fees for envelope-friendly ships. "

Linde waves off, however: No, to rebuild a ship, would be an unpopul re demand because that costs the ship owner a lot of money. "Instead, one rather digs out the port of Hamburg. That also costs money. But that does not affect the shipowner or the shipping company, but the port with the support of the state and thus the taxpayer. In Hamburg, the fairway of the Elbe is to be deepened in 2008, although vessels with maximum draft can already dock in the ports of Bremerhaven and from 2010 also in Wilhelmshaven.

At the National Maritime Conference in Hamburg in December 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised billions of euros for the expansion of the port, but at the same time declared shipping a "national task". The international competition is very tough, she said: "We should go new technological ways, and Germany has the best conditions."

New technologies are indeed in the shipbuilding industry, but they are barely noticed. The way from the shipyard to the dock worker is too long, because at some point you will no longer see the forest for the trees, "says Fly, whose specialist area deals with an unloved part of shipping traffic: the entire transport chain, He calls it "the no-man's-land, connecting all the important components". Innovations are difficult to enforce here because the area is both extremely specialized and largely disorganized also because it is open to everyone.

Where it jams, the first thing that is noticeable in the transport chain is the last link: the port personnel. For the dockers have the thankless task of releasing thousands of steel crates from their anchorages during snow and ice, day and night. This is a time-consuming and nerve-racking spectacle: So-called Lascher must turn up the "Tristlocks". These are the four safety closures at the corners of each container, which hold it together with the other boxes over deck, where there is no cell bar.

The crane bridge driver shuttles the lashing devices in a metal basket over the respective container row. Shortly thereafter, the workers walk over the boxes and try to open the Twistlocks with up to 20 kilogram operating rods. "It is forbidden to practice on the containers, but you can only approach the gap between two 20-footers from above, " says Linde. Meanwhile, the bridge driver can neither load nor unload containers. For this reason, technicians call this work a "non-turnaround process", which leads to extremely long lay times in the port.

There is an alternative to conventional load securing: "With conventional lashing, the crane bridge for container handling is eliminated, " says Linde. That costs time. But it is different if you use "fully automatic twistlocks". If these corner locks were used, the dangerous lashing work fell over the deck. The crane bridge driver would only need to attach his gripper arm, jerk briefly - and the container would be free for transport.

Last year, Germanischer Lloyd extensively tested the fully automatic screw caps for functionality and strength under various conditions. "All tested fully automatic machines have passed the limit load and simultaneous material load in the test series", reports Jan-Olaf Probst, ship-type manager of container ships. The shipping companies are still afraid of the automatic twistlocks. Because they see a danger: All four twistlocks must point in the same direction. If a terminal worker incorrectly inserts the closure before the container journey, you will not be able to get the container from the stack in the destination port without a welding machine. But who tells the docker how to properly twist such a corner lock: the port, the terminal operator, the shipowner or the manufacturer of the twistlocks?

Questions that seem idle as long as the world economy - and with it the transport business - flourishes. "It's always like that, " says Fly. "If the industry is doing well, it's bad for innovation - because they're all busy." That's still how it is. But that could change soon. Because every boom will eventually come to an end.

"Overcapacity is a latent danger, " says Ingmar Loges, ship expert at Hypo-Vereinsbank. Two years ago, he predicted the port bottlenecks that have become the bottleneck for global trade growth. "If you order a ship tomorrow, you'll get it in 2011 - if you're lucky, " says Loges. "For Germany, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with standard ships in terms of costs. The quality argument is no longer as strong as it used to be - a ship from Korea is now just as good as a German one. "If the upturn abates or ship hulls rise faster from the dock than the global economy, shipyards, shipowners and charterers need one another competitive advantage to stand out from each other and from their ambitious colleagues in Asia.

For example, an unconventional, envelope-friendly ship design: In beginnings, there are the "feeder ships", which with about 1000 standard containers on board the large ports and rappel the many, for example, from China originating tin boxes in smaller ports onward: They drive "open top" - open at the top. This means: without top and bottom deck, but with a large ship's belly, which is enclosed by high board walls - so that no water can penetrate. The Hamburg shipyard Sietas is among the feeders, or "feeder", because of their open-top mixed design one of the most successful. In front of the ships, the Sietas engineers protect possible dangerous goods with hatch covers from inflowing water. Behind them, they stack a container scaffolding from top to bottom - without hatches, which would have to move the crane bridge consuming to get to the underlying boxes. The big advantage of this concept: Since the containers sit in their cells, they do not require time-consuming securing maneuvers.

The concept could be applied to larger barges. But even here, the ports would have to calculate the mooring fees differently, so that the thing pays off: "After the viability of a ship, " claim Müller and the ship's TÜV, and not the size below deck. Because an open ship just does not have a closed ship's belly. Germanischer Lloyd is already supporting an appeal by the shipowners to the Port Authority in the Netherlands, which is home to Europe's largest container port in Rotterdam - against the "Messwillkür". There is no such initiative in Germany yet. However, unlike Rotterdam, Hamburg did not suffer any growth slump last year.

The German flagship industry speaks several languages, but only one sets the tone: "At the moment, the economy is deciding where to go, " says Fly. The influential shipping companies, as in the early stages of container shipping, take the safe route: they team up with a terminal or build their own. Hapag-Lloyd is involved in the container terminal Altenwerder equipped with robots. Mærsk and the logistics company Eurogate operate the North Sea Terminal in Bremerhaven, where only their own ships or cooperating shipping companies are allowed to operate. Meanwhile, in the development departments of many shipyards, engineers design their container giants without knowing the true economic costs of the haulage company or dealing with the handling conditions.

Oliver Kluck already dealt with this problem in his nautical and logistics studies. "Up to now, large container vessels have only been optimized for two factors: speed at sea and parking space capacity. The harbor processes usually do not involve the designers, "criticizes the Rostocker, who is currently trying to revolutionize container shipping with a novel computer program. After several years of meticulous formulas, he has designed a simple application that can be used on a common PC within seconds to find out how box transport is most economical in individual cases.

"This is a whole new market, " says Fly excited, who has already tested the program. The company Mærsk, which even operates its own shipyards, has finer systems - "but they sometimes take three weeks to work through a design." The highlight of Kluck's program: It does not expect real numbers, but only factors in everything a temporal relationship. "It's very easy to operate even on a pocket computer, " enthuses Fliege, "and shows immediately where it is stuck: on the ship, on the route or on the container itself."

"Innovations arise where communication takes place, " says Fly. Such a program would be a first step towards making the economic technological and the technology more economic - so that the German flagship industry does not pass the same as the Babylonian construction industry. The incomprehensible master builders eventually got lost because they could not talk to each other anymore - just like Kluck, who is now studying literature. ■

Tina Suchanek, a freelance journalist, is always on the lookout for good stories. This was the former bdw intern in the Port of Hamburg.

Tina Suchanek


· The deletion of container ships takes too long.

· One reason: Dockers, ship owners, logisticians, charterers and financiers pursue different interests.

· Some problems could be solved technically, others only with a new organization and goodwill.


The father of the container is Malcolm McLean, a truck driver from the US state of North Carolina. He was driven by a question in the thirties: Could not you just put the entire truck trailer on a ship? The idea had come to him as he pulled a packet of cigarettes out of the machine during the lengthy loading and unloading of his cotton bales.

In 1956 he drove - now as a shipowner - on a converted freighter, the first 58 units of stackable boxes from Newark in New Jersey to Houston in Texas. That was the birth of container shipping. In 1966, the first standard box reached Germany. With a width and height of 8 feet or 2.30 meters each, the crates still meet the then truck standards. The length varied over time between 17 and 45 feet. As a measure of all things, however, the TEU, the 20-foot container, has prevailed.

100 million tin boxes are on the road around the globe every day. If you put all containers of the world in a row, that would be 18 times as long as the Great Wall of China.


The container ships have become more and more gigantic in the last 40 years. While the "Hakone Maru" collected 750 containers at a length of 187 and a width of 26 meters in 1968, today more than 11, 000 standardized boxes can be stacked on the "Emma Mærsk" (398 meters long, 56 meters wide).


Institute of Shipping Economics and Logistics in Bremen:

Background information on containers and container ships:

Homepage of the Port of Hamburg:


The number of containers handled worldwide is growing rapidly. In the mid-eighties, it was about 50 million. Since then, it has increased eightfold to over 400 million. According to forecasts of the Bremen Institute for Shipping Economics and Logistics (ISL), container throughput will double again by 2014.


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