Bristol Unveils Deep-Sea Port Plans

Plans to build a GBP300m ($543m) deepsea container port at Bristol in the west of England able to handle ships of up to 12,000 teu were unveiled yesterday, adding to the list of half a dozen other UK schemes on the drawing board.

However, the project will only go ahead with the backing of financial commitments from shipping lines.

'We want users to give bankable guarantees,' said managing director and joint owner David Ord.

Bristol Port Co has applied for a Harbour Revision Order and, if all goes according to plan, the facility could open three years from now.

The port, which describes itself as a fledgling in the container handling business with annual throughput of just 150,000 teu, has identified a 100 acre site for the proposed terminal that will be designed to handle 1.5m teu a year.

News of the initiative coincided with an announcement from Mersey Docks and Harbour Co that Peel Holdings was close to launching a formal bid for the Liverpool company. The offer is expected to value Mersey Docks at around GBP780m.

Peel, which owns Manchester Ship Canal and Clydeport, made an approach earlier this year and is still seeking a resolution to deficits in Mersey Docks' pensions funds.

Mersey Docks is working on plans to expand its container facilities so that post-panamax ships can be handled, while Clydeport has ambitions to build a container transhipment hub on the Clyde in Scotland.

Containers only account for about 6% of tonnage handled by Bristol, with cars representing 20% of business and refrigerated cargoes growing fast.

However, a number of lines including CMA CGM and Mediterranean Shipping Co now operate feeder services from the continent to Bristol, while one of the loops of the Southern Africa Europe Container Service operated by Maersk Sealand, Safmarine, P'O Nedlloyd and Deutsche Afrika-Linien, also calls at Bristol.

The port believes it is well-placed to attract more deepsea container traffic because of its proximity to Birmingham, the Midlands, west London and south Wales, plus good road and rail connections.

Features of the project include 1.2 km of quay and 10 gantry cranes large enough to handle super post-panamax ships.

The exact cost of the development will be firmed up over the next six months, but both chairman Terence Mordaunt and Mr Ord, who together bought the port from Bristol City Council in 1990, insist that the project must be 'customer driven' and will not be a speculative venture.

Should all three of the schemes now seeking planning consent in southeast England get the green light, it could mean the end to Britstol's ambitions if container lines decide to restrict their deepsea calls to Felixstowe'Harwich, London or Southampton.

The latest generation of containerships will only ever make one call in the UK, Mr Mordaunt said.

However, he said Bristol would not be backing PD Ports' call for the government to postpone decisions on P'O Ports' London Gateway proposal and Hutchison's development plans at Felixstowe and nearby Bathside Bay until the alternatives have been considered.

PD Ports, which wants to build a 1.5m teu deepsea container port on the Tees costing up to GBP300m that could be ready in three or four years time, argues that this project should be looked at within the context of a national ports strategy. That should be drawn up before decisions are taken on any of the schemes now seeking planning consent, PD Ports contends.

But Mr Mordaunt said Bristol was against the idea of a national ports strategy and that 'purely commercial development was the only way to go'.