I recently read an article in the Economist about the pending Panama Canal expansion. Fascinating to those who find such things fascinating — I think the containerization revolution is one of the great mostly-unknown stories of modern time. A few interesting angles I hadn’t been aware of:
– Some people suggest that a more efficient way to deal with the Panama bottleneck would be a new deep water port on the Pacific side and a rail link across the isthmus. This is a revival of a very old idea (there is already some kind of rail link, and I think there were old railroads before the canal, although not sure), but it has some intuitive sense again for a few reasons. Supertankers and big bulk carriers are already far too large for the canal, even post-expansion, so it’s really about container ships. And I think that the largest container ships are soon going to be too big for the post-expansion canal, if they aren’t already. The biggest out there is the Emma Maersk, at 11,000 TEU, and the estimate for post-expansion capacity is 12,000 TEU (although it’s really about exact dimensions, not estimates of numbers of containers). And of course the whole point of containers is that they can be easily inter-modaled, so the idea of loading onto separate ships on the Atlantic side seems to make sense.
– There is also a lesser known “Suezmax” limit. Given the lack of locks, the practical limit is on draft, and there is apparently a canal-side pipeline so that fully loaded tankers can send part of their payload alongside to meet them at the other end.
– Finally, there is the bottleneck through the Straits of Malacca. I had heard of this as a congestion issue, because it’s long and narrow and tends to be infested with pirates, but apparently there’s also a size limit, due to draft at the shallowest point. Thus “Malaccamax”. This is already an issue for the biggest tankers and bulk carriers, but there are suggestions that the next generation of container ships will also run up against the limit. Seems like a fitting symbol for the scale of the China trade, which may be getting too big for the world as currently constructed. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
– Malaccamax is a naval architecture term for the largest ships capable of fitting through the Straits of Malacca. A Malaccamax ship is defined to be, with 18,000 TEUs, of 300,000 DWT, 470 m long, 60 m wide, 20 m of draft. The restriction is caused by the shallow point on the Strait, where minimum depth is 25 m.