Tsing Ma Bridge a factor in Hong Kong Port’s slowing box volumes

Shipping companies and port operators have asked the Hong Kong Marine Department to reassess the height restrictions on vessels sailing under the Tsing Ma Bridge. Those lobbying for the reassessment fear that under the current regime containerships of 18,000 teu or more maybe being unnecessarily blocked from calling at the ports of Hong Kong and Shekou, causing significant economic losses.

When the Tsing Ma Bridge was completed in 1997, containerships with a carrying capacity of around 8,000 teu were the largest vessels likely to have passed under its 1,377m span on their way to the Port of Hong Kong. In the ensuing years containerships have grown enormously; last week Hong Kong’s Orient Overseas Container Line named its latest acquisition: OOCL Hong Kong. It has a carrying capacity of 21,413 teu.

Unlike the size of containerships, the height of the Tsing Ma Bridge has not grown in the last 20 years. As more and more of the latest generation of mega-vessels are excluded from entering the port through the Tsing Ma Bridge, it is feared that liner operators are more likely to establish routes that bypass Hong Kong with cargoes that may never return.

According to the original plan for the Tsing Ma Bridge, which links the islands of Tsing Yi and Ma Wan, the air draft restriction is 53m. The Marine Department subsequently conducted a “Review on utilizing Tidal Windows for Slightly Over-height Vessels to Transit the Ma Wan Channel”, where it confirmed the 53m restriction albeit with a 2.3m tidal allowance

Those campaigning for a relaxation of the 53m restriction insist that more accurate measuring devices introduced since the bridge was constructed show that the air draft is considerably greater than first estimated. And they have employed consultants to show this.

The commissioned consultants’ report revealed that at the centre of the channel passing under the bridge the air draft was 70m. Even at the edges of the channel heights of 65.8m and 68.5m were recorded by cutting-edge measuring equipment.

Equipped with these new findings the lobby group has met the Marine Department on a number of occasions to discuss changes but thus far a resolution acceptable to all parties has yet to be found.

Tonggu Channel

An alternative route through the Tonggu Channel is often cited. Originally the channel has a draft of about 4m. It has been subsequently dredged to 15.5m allowing one-way traffic. Unfortunately the passage of the channel was built against the tide promoting rapid sedimentation and the need for further periodic dredging. There are efforts to widen the channel to allow for two-way traffic. But the tide is so strong the risk of collision is high. There have already been a number of alleged minor grounding incidents.

A possible solution

The issue could fairly easily, and relatively inexpensively, be resolved by installing a monitoring system for the bridge and the vessels seeking to transit under it.

Equipment to measure in real-time the bridge height, together with accurate measurement of vessel draught or air draft, and the provision of a medium for broadcasting this real-time information could easily be deployed. If this was backed up by regulated procedures the safe passage of any containership could be determined on the data received rather than what seems increasingly to be an arbitrary measurement.

Such systems are already in place in a number of ports around the world, notably the Port of Hamburg in Germany, where vessels may need to pass under the Kohlbrand Bridge. More pertinently, a similar system is already in operation in Hong Kong near Chek Lap Kok where it is critical that building works near the airport must not exceed the height limitation for aircraft safety reasons.

The economic impact

The consultants report estimates that in 2014 maybe 1m teu had been affected by the restrictions relating to the Tsing Ma Bridge leading to a possible loss of value added of HK$0.8bn and around 2,000 jobs. “The affected throughputs may continue to grow following the trend of increasing deployment of mega-vessels. It is estimated that the accumulated affected throughput could rise to around 2.3m teu by 2020 and 4.2m teu by 2030.

Evidence of the possible economic impact can be found in the comments of Maersk China chairman, Tim Smith.

“For Maersk Line, some of our larger vessels such as our PS type and EEE type vessels are not allowed to pass under Tsing Ma Bridge with the current air draft regulation of 53m. If the air draft regulation was increased to just 58m (which we believe from the consultants’ report is entirely legitimate), these larger vessels could pass under the bridge when their draft is 15m or more.

“Whilst there are other restrictions on movement through the Ma Wan channel for such large vessels (e.g. transiting in daylight hours), in principle an adjustment of the airdraft would provide us with more flexibility, and allow more efficient scheduling including HK on the same rotation as other ports in the west Pearl River Delta. Given the size of the vessels concerned, such vessels need to be able to make multiple port calls to fill up with cargo. Current air draft regulations make it less efficient to deploy the larger vessels on rotations involving HK together with other west Pearl River Delta ports, which risks driving business away from HK over time. As such, I believe it is in HK’s interest to review the airdraft limitation again, and make use of modern technology and methods to ensure HK remains attractive to the latest generation of ships,” he concludes.

A spokesperson for Hutchison International Terminals (HIT) said: “To stay competitive, Hong Kong Port needs comprehensive facilitation measures to attract shipping lines calling at Hong Kong. There is no doubt that the Hong Kong Government has a role to play.

We fully understand that the relaxation of air draft restrictions at the Tsing Ma Bridge involves safety concerns. As far as we know, government is reviewing the issue. We would like to hear from Government soon with an accurate and complete analysis of the safety considerations of vessel passage of Tsing Ma Bridge.”

After a five-year impasse there is now reason to be hopeful that a compromise could be arrived at. Commenting on the current situation the Transport and Housing Bureau said:

“The Transport and Housing Bureau is fully aware of the concerns raised by the industry over the air draft restriction of the Tsing Ma Bridge and its potential impact on the passage of the container vessels.  However, given that Tsing Ma Bridge is the only land link to the airport, a prudent approach is necessary.  The Government is examining the feasibility of relaxing the air draft restriction, having regard to technical constraints, safety risks and impacts on highway operation and marine traffic management.

Since the issues involved are complicated, and we need to sort out the various implications carefully before reaching a conclusion.  While we will not put a time limit on the review, we are vigorously pursuing the matter. ”

There is no doubt the Marine Department, and those seeking a review of the current height restrictions share a common vision in wanting to ensure safe shipping and optimal vessel traffic in Hong Kong. The installation of the necessary monitoring systems for bridge height and vessel air drafts would appear to be a good first step.




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