It was recently reported that the world’s largest container ship docked at Felixstowe in Suffolk. The MSC Loeto has a capacity of 24,346 TEU, which is 20ft equivalent units and means that it can carry 24,346 standard shipping containers. The vessel is 400m long and was launched in April from Ningbo in China.
These supersized container vessels, also known as megaships or ULCVs (Ultra Large Container Vessels), are becoming increasingly common. ULCVs are defined as vessels that are up to 400m in length and have a capacity of over 18,500 TEU. Until the year 2000, the maximum capacity for a container ship was 10,000 TEU.
Maersk Line introduced a series of 13,000 TEU vessels in 2013, just 10 years ago. Every year since then, larger container ships have been introduced until we have arrived at today’s mega 24,000 plus TEU vessels. However, there is some debate as to just how beneficial these megaships are to the maritime industry. Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons.
Megaships have been developed because they can reduce the operational costs of shipping lines, making them more competitive and profitable. The credit crunch of 2008-9 saw some shipping companies operating at a loss, and this drove the urgency for strict economies of scale.
The more containers a ship can carry, the lower the cost per unit, and this has led to vessel sizes doubling within a decade. However, the increased capacity has not always matched demand, meaning that prices have become even more competitive and this has ultimately benefited exporters rather than the shipping lines.
There is an increasing emphasis on reducing CO2 emissions in the shipping industry, and meeting the 2050 zero carbon targets. Larger vessels are considered to be more environmentally friendly because they can carry more containers, thus reducing the amount of voyages needed to transport the equivalent amount of goods.
They are also constructed to modern standards and are more fuel efficient than older models, and produce less harmful emissions. Mega vessels sail at slower speeds, conserving fuel and resulting in less pollution. They also improve the efficiency of the supply chain, reducing the overall amount of journeys required.
One of the biggest problems of megaships is that the infrastructure is not fully developed to cope with them. This means that they can only call at a limited number of ports, as they require extended turning lanes, bigger cranes for uploading and loading cargo, and more warehouse and haulage capacity.
They are also more of a hazard when sailing along narrow and congested routes, as was demonstrated by the blockage of the Suez Canal by the 400m long Ever Given in March 2021. Currently, only Asia-Europe shipping routes are able to cope with supersized vessels, which limits their usefulness.
Megaships also represent a higher liability to shipping companies, with higher losses in the event of an accident and higher insurance premiums. They are high maintenance assets that must operate at full volumes to remain profitable.
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