Post-Brexit UK ports suffer container logjams

The UK’s leading container terminals struggled to cope with the pandemic driven surge of imports last year resulting in lengthy delays for hauliers and vessels and an excess of containers building up in ports.

Since the UK departed the European Union on January 1 and started trading under a post-Brexit customs and regulatory regime, the latest data from Container xChange, the world’s leading online platform for buying, selling and leasing shipping containers, indicates the situation has worsened.

Under Container xChange’s Container Availability Index (CAx), an index reading of 0.5 describes a balanced market. Below 0.5 means there is a shortage of containers. Above 0.5 means there is an excess of containers.

At the port of Felixstowe the average reading of the CAx so far in 2021 for a 40 ft container is 0.95, up from 0.79 in 2020. The CAx for a 20 ft box has increased from an average of 0.78 in 2020 to 0.90 this year.

A similar picture is apparent at the port of Southampton where the CAx reading for a 40 ft container is 0.86 in 2021, up from an average of 0.71 last year. For a 20 ft container the CAx reading is 0.85, up from an average of 0.72 in 2020.

“The UK’s leading gateway terminals for container traffic suffered congestion for much of 2020 prompting carriers to cut some calls and ship cargo in from European hubs via the Channel Tunnel, ferry services and feeder services instead,” said Dr Johannes Schlingmeier, CEO of Container xChange. 

“Based on the build-up of containers at ports in 2021, it seems the situation has further deteriorated. We are now seeing critical levels of boxes building up at Southampton and Felixstowe. Post-Brexit cross-Channel shipments are more complicated under dual-Customs regimes and this could be a factor in logistics bottlenecks.”

Efforts by container lines to avoid Brexit disruption and delays at southern terminals by launching new services into the port of Liverpool are also now coming unstuck, with the port struggling to handle increased volumes. This is reflected in an accelerating excess of containers at the port.

In 2020 the average CAx reading at the port of Liverpool for a 40 ft container was 0.59. In 2021 this has climbed t0 0.75. For a 20 ft container the CAx reading in 2021 is 0.82, up from an average of 0.68 last year.

European gateway ports have also suffered disruptions and delays due to pandemic driven container traffic surges. However, container availability at leading hubs is currently better balanced than in the UK.

At the port of Rotterdam, the CAx average reading for a 40 ft container this year is 0.51, compared to an average of 0.40 in 2020. At Antwerp, shortages have been a problem, with an average reading for a 40 ft container of 0.21 in 2020 improving to a more balanced 0.41 this year.

Similarly, at Hamburg, the average CAx reading for a 40 ft container in 2020 was 0.27 suggesting critical shortages. This year the average reading has improved to 0.49.


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