Delays at Felixstowe trigger calls for government intervention

Britain’s biggest container port — Felixstowe — is grinding to a “virtual standstill” at peak times, business users and freight trade associations have warned.  The Suffolk container terminal, which markets itself as the “Port of Britain”, is facing calls for government intervention after longstanding complaints from hauliers reached new heights this autumn, in part due to the Covid-19 crisis. Businesses and hauliers said a shortage of time slots for picking up containers was causing businesses to incur additional port storage costs, creating delays in supply chains, with some resorting to air freighting shipments at significant extra cost.

“The Port of Felixstowe is at a virtual standstill and the issue is being blamed on a shortage of labour,” said the Felixstowe Port Users’ Association in a note, estimating the port was operating at “70 to 80 per cent capacity”, compared with 94 per cent in Southampton. “This virtual standstill is not just a problem for local businesses, it is a problem for the whole of the UK’s economy because approximately 40 per cent of all containers coming into and departing from the UK currently do so through Felixstowe,” the association said, adding that it had been urging the port to increase capacity since June.

It said that the problems were “not good” as the UK braced for a huge shift in its border arrangements caused by Brexit — which risked putting additional pressure on the port. Bifa, the international freight forwarders’ association, issued a statement on October 9 calling for government intervention at the port, after warning that its members were suffering “major operational damage”.

“Bifa members have suffered from two years of poor service from the port, and we feel that there is a need for independent intervention by the government,” said Robert Keen, Bifa’s director-general. The government has not intervened in what it considers a commercial matter, but Whitehall officials indicated that the Department for Transport was monitoring the situation. Felixstowe is advised by Chris Grayling, the former transport secretary who came under fire when in office for handing a GBP13.8m Brexit contract to a ferry company that owned no ferries.

Mr Grayling is paid GBP100,000 for seven hours work per week, according to the register of MPs’ interests. Bifa said that the port’s Vehicle Book System (VBS) appeared to be at the root of the problem, exacerbating global pressures caused by disruption from Covid-19 and an increase in container moves ahead of the “Golden Week” public holiday in China. Felixstowe Port Users’ Association said that VBS slots to pick up containers were running at about 180 per hour, compared with 240 per hour in 2010.

It added that individual cranes at Felixstowe were unloading only 16 containers per hour, compared with more than 30 in rival ports such as Southampton. 

Businesses and freight trade associations say a shortage of time slots for picking up containers at Felixstowe was leading to extra cost (C) Dan Kitwood/GettyDelays at Felixstowe trigger calls for government interventionFelixstowe is facing calls for government intervention to improve capacity at the port (C) Dan Kitwood/Getty

Felixstowe, which is owned by Hutchison Ports, said the numbers for crane movements were “inaccurate” but declined to provide alternative data, saying comparisons were very hard to make. Felixstowe added that 4,500 vehicle slots were available daily and that 90 per cent of containers were available for collection immediately following discharge from the carrying vessel, with average stays for containers on the quayside currently just over five days. The port also rejected accusations made by haulage groups that it had furloughed too many staff during the Covid-19 crisis, which it said had reduced productivity at the port by only 5 per cent. 

A spokesperson added: “The Vehicle Booking System has spare capacity each day and we continue to handle over 90,000 containers per week by sea, road and rail — the overwhelming majority of which are customs-cleared and available for collection on arrival.”

Delays at Felixstowe trigger calls for government interventionFelixstowe denied claims made by the port users’ association that its crane movements were loading nearly half the number of containers being loaded at Southampton (C) Dan Kitwood/GettyDelays at Felixstowe trigger calls for government interventionFelixstowe rejected accusations that it had furloughed too many staff during the pandemic (C) Dan Kitwood/Getty

However, hauliers and businesses maintain that the port is still suffering unacceptable delays with the “spare” VBS slots being available either at the wrong time of day, or the wrong terminal. Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, said the port was “not running properly” and behaving in the style of a “dominant monopoly”. Peter Crellen, managing director of the Norfolk Feather Company whose customers include Harrods and Dunelm Group, said that the port appeared to be in “chaos” and the delays were starting to hurt his business.

“It started a few months ago: stuff that took a few days, took a week, but now things are taking three or four weeks to come through and no one knows where stuff is. We are having to air freight at a cost of GBP3,000 to GBP10,000 a container,” he added. Christopher Taylor, chairman of James Robinson Fibres, said he had travelled to Felixstowe from his headquarters in Bradford this week to try to get to the bottom of the delays, after the company ran short of some raw materials. 

“We’d normally get a container within five days of a ship docking, but it can take another ten to twelve days to get a box out of there now. We’re now telling suppliers in the Far East to send to Southampton not Felixstowe.  “It’s always been inefficient but at the moment it’s terrible.

In 50 years of working I’ve never had to go down, but it’s so chronic down there [in Felixstowe] I felt I had to do something.”