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Britain’s Busiest Port Battles Backlog Traffic Jam

Like many of the world’s major ports, the U.K.’s Port of Felixstowe is in a jam—and its next step to curb the flow of traffic may be to start more turning container ships away if a massive backlog doesn’t improve anytime soon.

A report from ITV News noted that the average shipping container that arrives at Felixstowe, Britain’s largest port, spends more than nine days at marine gateway before it is unloaded. This is double the average “dwell time” for import containers in 2020, the network said.

Felixstowe handles just under 40 percent of all the containers that enter and exit the U.K.

In the last week of September, the average wait time was higher than at any point last year, including during November 2020 when the port last experienced severe congestion as online holiday shopping ramped up amid a second national Covid-19 lockdown. The port is handling similar import volumes to 2019, but is currently importing more containers that it is managing to transport out by rail and road—a similar problem plaguing the U.S., where a labor shortage is impacting both efficiency at distribution centers and within intermodal transportation.

The U.K.’s Confederation of Public Transport said the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) sector was short 4,000 workers. The shortage of drivers for these HGVs have caused route cancellations across England’s northeast and southwest regions, as well as throughout Scotland. This has led to a significant downturn in the number of container collections, and has hampered efforts to unload and reload ships when retailers are hurrying in peak-season merchandise.

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Haulers operating at Felixstowe estimate the number of container collections in September was down between 15 and 20 percent from normal, with anywhere between 5,000 and 7,500 containers backlogged at the port as a result.

The port said it has exceeded its empty storage capacity for shipping lines and now has almost 50,000 empty containers on the terminal in total. This has caused the port to impose controls on the number of empty containers it accepts. Import volume levels are still growing and the port is telling its customers that it is at capacity.

Felixstowe says it now takes 10 days before cargo could be taken inland to be unloaded, up from the usual 4.5 days.

Last week, major shipping container companies including Maersk, Evergreen Marine Corp and CCMA-CGM all had empty containers turned away from Felixstowe. The cargo-less containers were transported on to other U.K. ports, including Liverpool, Teesport, Port of Tyne and Tilbury. Maersk is currently rerouting more ships from the U.K.’s ports entirely, opting instead to discharge the cargo in other European ports so that smaller vessels can transport shipments back to the country.

“The pre-Christmas peak, combined with haulage shortages, congested inland terminals, poor vessel schedule reliability and the pandemic, has resulted in a buildup of containers at the port,” the Port of Felixstowe said in a statement. “The vast majority of import containers are cleared for collection within minutes of arriving and there are over 1,000 unused haulier bookings most days. However, the situation is improving and there is more spare space for import containers this week than at any time since the beginning of July when supply chain impacts first started to bite.”

Amid the backlog of containers and the shortage of drivers, The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said retailers in the country are working closely with suppliers to mitigate issues, including finding alternative routes to bring goods into the country.

“This comes on the back of a very challenging 18 months for supply chains due to Covid and the disruption to global shipping and transport logistics,” said Helen Dickson OBE, chief executive of the BRC, in a statement. “The government must act urgently to increase the size and scope of the temporary visa scheme for overseas HGV drivers while U.K. recruits are trained and qualified, or there could be further disruption for consumers in the months ahead.”

Ikea confirmed to ITV News that it has faced some challenges in returning containers to Felixstowe, but added it had “only seen minimal impact.”

“Like many retailers, we are experiencing ongoing challenges with our supply chains due to a variety of factors, including HGV driver shortages,” an Ikea spokesperson told the network. “As a result, we are experiencing low availability in some of our ranges. With Felixstowe nearing capacity, we have faced some challenges in returning containers to the port. However, we have only seen a minimal impact arising from these current issues.”

According to Robert Keen, the director general of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), the association has anecdotal evidence that container shipment dwell time across multiple U.K. ports has nearly doubled from 5 to 9.7 days over the past two weeks alone.

“The trade association’s members are resigned to this being just part and parcel of the deep sea shipping world these days,” Keen said in a statement. “It appears that one of the problems is that the up-country distribution centers are full and cannot take any more ‘stuff.’ It appears that early noises are being made that the peak season is going to be tough and some suspect that the shipping lines will be making plans to spread the load between Felixstowe, Liverpool, Southampton and London Gateway.”