Back in 2006, I wrote a few posts commenting on China's multiple ports, including the newest project at Yangshan near Shanghai. On my most recent trip to Shanghai earlier this month, I took the opportunity to personally visit Yangshan's Deepwater Port and ask questions about its progress and success, especially in the face of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).
I recommend first reading what I wrote in 2006:
One of the concerns early on with Yangshan was whether it would:
- too directly compete with Shanghai's existing ports,
- be too far for transport of goods exported from the mainland or goods imported to the mainland,
- build in too much capacity, contributing to lower utilization across all ports, etc.
My personal visit to Yangshan helped to alleviate some of these concerns, but need to be reconsidered in the face of impacts resulting from the GFC.
The Highway to Yangshan
The visit to Yangshan was coordinated via my father-in-law, who is an official with the Shanghai City Government. While driven from Shanghai to the main entry toll-way of the bridge to Yangshan, I could find nothing to complain about regarding the roads or traffic. In fact, the ride was a bit dull as there is little scenery to take in, especially on a gray and dreary morning as we had on November 11th.
Up to the Yangshan toll gates, the trip is just over an hour at a distance of 100km from Shanghai. Before passing through the gates, we rendevouzed with officials from Tongsheng Logistics:
"Shanghai Tongsheng Logistics Park Investment and Development Co., Ltd. is located in Yangshan Free Trade Port Area. As one of the chief investors for the development of auxiliary projects around the Yangshan Deep-water Port, the company also specializes in the development of logistics property and bonded logistics business. Relying on the deep water port, the company endeavors to provide customers with first-class facilities and convenient services."
A Tongsheng official then guided us through the Yangshan toll gates and immediately on to the 32km bridge that weaves its way above muddy, ocean waters out to the Yangshan port itself. For carriers, the bridge toll is free; for all other vehicles, the toll is 20 yuan one-way. Obviously, the toll for carriers was waved to better reduce the total cost of logistics providers using the port, thus making it more attractive to additional clients.
Along the bridge, Tongsheng has also been trying to diversify its investments from an energy perspective through building an above-water wind farm. Its intent is to provide electricity to the Yangshang Free Trade Port Area, but I did not hear how viable or productive this investment has been so far. During my visit, I saw only one windmill moving despite being right on the ocean and exposed to the wind from the sea.
As we began to reach the islands upon which Yangshan was built over the past 4-5 years, construction of the final phase (Phase 4) could be seen just off to the right of the bridge.
Phase 1 of the port construction ended in December 2005 after 1.6km of berths were in place. Phase 2 followed with 1.4km finished a year later in 2006, Phase 3 with 1.35km completed in 2007 and Phase 3B with 5.6km completed by the end of 2008. Total designed, throughput capacity as of today is 11 million TEU, and the port processed approximately 8 million TEU in 2008 (i.e. port utilization was at 73%). By comparison, the designed capacity of both Waigaoqiao and Baoshan ports together is 15 million TEU.
Once Phase 4 is completed, Yangshan would have an official designed capacity of 15 million TEU, but I was told by the port engineer that this has already been purposely delayed due to the GFC and resulting drop in forecasted TEU growth per year. Growth in TEU per year had initially been based on the fact that since 2004, Shanghai was processing an additional 3 million TEU per year, with the total TEU processed in 2004 being 14.5 million TEU against the 15 million TEU designed capacity of Waigaoqiao and Baoshan ports.
In 2008, the total TEU processed by all Shanghai ports was 28 million against a designed capacity of 26 million. After pressing the Tongsheng and port officials for an estimate, they said to expect 2009 processed TEU to be approximately 24 million for all of Shanghai, down about 14%.
When arriving at the center of the port infrastructure, there is a welcome center and small-scale version of the existing and projected port facilities that combines with an interactive video. The entire exhibit helps put the port facilities in perspective as it is difficult to take in entirely due to its sheer size.
It is important to note that all of Shanghai's ports are managed by representatives and departments of the Shanghai City Government. Yangshan in particular has been built with distinct advantages and with diversification from the capabilities of ports closer to Shanghai a key objective. These advantages include:
- 14-18 meter natural water depth as opposed to the 12.5 meter natural water depth closer to Shanghai; this provides the exclusive capability in Shanghai to handle the largest, recent generation container ships
- Officials mentioned a special agreement between China and the U.S. regarding container inspection at Yangshan that excludes other Shanghai ports. This allegedly allows containers having undergone inspection at Yangshan to transit to final destination within the U.S. without inspection at U.S. ports. However, I have not found any online sources documenting any agreement outside of the Megaports Initiative.
After going through the welcome center, I was taken over to the Yangshan viewing platform to better see the entire expanse of the port. Pictures do not do the port justice, but I tried to capture a feeling of the facility's massive size.
In the above picture, you can see all of the unmanned, unloading berths. Below is a more direct view of the container yard and automated container movement vehicles. The entire port is very lightly manned beyond security personnel, drivers and required administrative personnel.
There are currently no housing facilities and there are some adjacent service facilities built to service the port, such as docks for repair ships and fuel (see below).
Overall, the Tongsheng officials claimed the port owns the world record in container processing time at 850 / hour. Also, true to its strategy, currently 40-50% of its volume is trans-shipment container movement. In an effort to facilitate non-trans-shipment traffic, Shanghai port management has waived the fees at Yangshan for container movements between it and other Shanghai ports, such as Waigaoqiao and Baoshan.
After my visit, I became convinced that Yangshan is on the path to becoming Asia's leading trans-shipment point and one of the world's top ports in terms of technology, operational efficiency and service quality. So, amongst the early concerns regarding the port, the key question is whether utilization of its facilities, including newly planned services, can remain high enough to make the port profitable as early as forecasted in the face of the current slowdown in international trade across the world, and even after delaying Phase 4 construction. Otherwise, it will be some time before the port reaches its full potential.
Note: The data mentioned in this post is quoted from Tongsheng and Yangshang port representatives. It has not been independently verified.