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Liverpool owner Peel Ports eyes Hutchison’s Thamesport

Posted on: 26 February 2016

By Janet Porter,  Lloyd’s List

Port of Liverpool owner Peel Ports could be interested in taking over Hutchison’s Thamesport in southeast England.

Peel Ports chief executive Mark Whitworth confirmed to Lloyd’s List that the Liverpool-based group was considering whether to approach Hutchison, which owns both Felixstowe and Thamesport.

No formal talks have taken place but Mr Whitworth said he thought Hutchison was aware of Peel Ports’ interest.

Thamesport, whose future is in doubt after the recent loss of its last major customer, is close to Sheerness on the River Medway, which owned by Peel Ports. Sheerness handles vehicles, forest products, containers and general cargo, and has ambitious growth plans.

CMA CGM’s shortsea operator MacAndrews recently quit Thamesport for nearby Tilbury, while another major customer, Evergreen, left for Felixstowe in 2013.

Peel Ports is the statutory harbour authority for the Medway, which covers Thamesport as well as Sheerness.

Thamesport has been squeezed by a ferocious battle for market share in the southeast of the country as the arrival of DP World’s London Gateway to the east of the capital put other ports in the region under intense pressure.

Hutchison is not thought to have put Thamesport up for sale but is known to be considering its options, with talk in the industry that it could be mothballed.

Speaking during a reception at the Houses of Parliament to promote Peel Ports’ Liverpool2 development and highlight the group’s £650m investment programme in the northwest, Mr Whitworth said Thamesport could be an attractive asset that would complement its existing portfolio and support future development of its Sheerness business.

Anthony Tam, Hutchison Port Holdings’ head of group corporate affairs, said the group would not comment on market rumours, speculative questions or its future port investment plans.

Located on the Isle of Grain, some 35 miles east of central London, Thamesport was regarded as one of the most advanced in the world in terms of cargo-handling technology when it opened in 1990. Hutchison acquired the facility in 1998.

Addressing guests, which included Members of Parliament, shippers and forwarders, Mr Whitworth said the £300m Liverpool2 facility being built on the River Mersey outside the port’s existing locks would start handling its first ships towards the end of April. These will be trials initially to test the cranes and other equipment, with the first phase of the new facility due to be fully operational by October.

Liverpool2 will enable the port to handle vessels of 13,000 teu or more, whereas the locks currently limit ships to around 4,000 teu.

As completion of the development approaches, shippers and forwarders are urging the big global lines that currently call at ports in the southeast to consider deepsea services to the northwest.

In particular, Maersk Line was singled out by one shipper who would like the Danish line to add Liverpool to its Asia-Europe network.

“It makes no sense to only go to Felixstowe,” said Jerome Wildsmith, shipping director for the retail group B&M, during the reception.

James Roth, chairman of transport group Seacon, said he hoped container lines would see Liverpool2 as “a genuine opportunity to serve the north better”.

Others also complained about the expense of moving cargo by road or rail from ports in the south of England to the north, which was more than the cost of seafreight from Asia to Europe.

Mr Whitworth pointed out that some 90% of UK inbound containers are currently imported through ports in the southeast, principally Felixstowe, Southampton, London Gateway, and Tilbury. But 60% of those are bound for UK destinations in the north, while 65% of the population is located within 150 miles of Liverpool, he said.

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