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Are direct services becoming less attractive for shipping lines?

Excluding intra-regional markets, during the first quarter of 2017 we expect the overall ‘allocated capacity’ to increase by 1.2% compared to the same quarter of last year with the major three routes expected to remain: ‘Gulf & ISC-Far East’, ‘Far East-North America’ and ‘Europe & Med-Gulf & ISC-Far East’. For the first three months of 2017, these three markets are estimated to capture more than 39m TEU and to account for more than 40% of the overall capacity.

Of the three routes, ‘Europe & Med-Gulf & ISC-Far East’ is the one to report the biggest increase in percentage terms, up from 9.2m TEU in 2016Q1 to 14.4m TEU in 2017Q1 (+23.4%). Although Saudi ports remain the main ports for maritime services on this route, the capacity allocated on the services calling at Colombo (Sri Lanka) is projected to almost double between 2016Q1 and 2017Q1, with all the Alliances apart from Ocean Three scheduled to call here in 2017Q1. In percentage terms, the ports in Oman are also expected to benefit from higher volumes of allocated capacity on the services calling at its ports: estimated to increase from 0.7m TEU in 2016Q1 to more than 1.6m TEU in 2017Q1. The increase projected for the ‘Europe & Med-Gulf & ISC-Far East’ trade lane appears to have been gained at the expense of the direct route between Europe & Med and the Far East, for which in 2017Q1 we project a decline of more than 37% compared to the same quarter last year.

The results of our analysis are summarised in the following figure.

Figure 1: Europe & Med - Gulf & ISC - Far East, allocated capacity (mTEU) by selected countries

Source: MDS Transmodal Containership Databank, February 2017

Similarly, during the first quarter of 2017 we project a decrease in the capacity allocated on the direct services on the ‘Far East-North America’ route (down by 2.4%) with the capacity on the services calling at intermediate regions estimated to have increased by more than 6% compared to last year. The major port projected to benefit from the change in the port rotations is Tangier-Med (Morocco) which has attracted the ‘2M ALLIANCE - LION/PEARL/AE6/TP6’ service. The service, introduced during the 1st quarter of 2015, used to call into the Arabian Gulf ports of Salalah (Oman) and Jebel Ali (UAE) up until 2016Q3 and it now calls at the Moroccan port instead. Deploying 16 vessels averaging 13,100 TEU, Maersk has also recently introduced one or two larger E-Class type vessels onto the service. Other ports in the Mediterranean to benefit from intermediate calls on the ‘Far East-North America’ trade lanes are Haifa (Israel) and Port Said (Egypt) as shown in the following figure.

Figure 2: Europe & Med - Far East - North America, allocated capacity (mTEU) by selected countries

Source: MDS Transmodal Containership Databank, February 2017

With the reshaped Alliances starting to operate in April, the above changes in port rotations affecting both ‘Europe & Med-Far East’ route and the ‘North America-Far East’ trade lane will undoubtedly be subject to further shake-up in the coming weeks. To date no formal announcement on the service strings has been made yet by the Alliances apart from 2M. On February 13th, Maersk Line and MSC announced new services and the upgrade of existing services on the major East/West trade lanes with the aim of improving their transit times. It will be Interesting to watch how the other Alliances respond. With demand showing signs of picking up but still far from an equilibrium with supply, what the industry needs from this consolidation exercise is an optimisation of shipping line networks without flooding the market with excess capacity.