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CONTAINER terminal projects worth billions have been delayed or suspended as Russian imports sharply fell in the first quarter of this year, after the global crisis triggered the country’s first economic contraction this decade.
Throughput dropped as much as 60% at some terminals, especially the Far East, as it became cheaper to ship containers via St Petersburg instead. Many within the Russian container sector remain convinced the sector has yet to reach the bottom.
“Everything now is frozen or postponed,” said Rado Antovich, DP World’s managing director of its Russian operations, of container terminal expansion projects.
That includes planned developments or expansion at Ust-Luga, Lomonosov, Kaliningrad and St Petersburg.
DP World has been established for 15 years in Russia and operates the Vostochny International Container Services on the Far Eastern coast in a joint venture with local logistics provider, N-Trans.
Mr Antovich said that the dramatic falls in container imports have eliminated any need to expand existing terminals or build at new greenfield sites.
“We need to upgrade instead by addressing productivity, and cost and efficiency,” he said.
“These are things that the industry has been too busy to address during the good times.”
Until 2007, Russian container volumes had grown by an average rate of 24% for seven years, double global growth levels, according to Drewry Shipping Consultants.
Around $5.8bn was to be spent in port projects for the oil, dry bulk and container sectors by 2010, the country’s port association outlined just six months ago.
But executives familiar with Russia’s container industry forecast volumes in 2009 could drop by as much as 35%-40%, and take as long as five years to return to last year’s levels, estimated at between 4.3m and 4.5m teu.
The first casualty has been Russia’s first-ever greenfield box terminal at Ust-Luga, located on the Gulf of Finland 110km west of St Petersburg.
The first stage, costing $350m was scheduled to open in August with capacity of 500,000 teu, reaching 3m teu by 2014 and serving containerships of up to 6,000 teu capacity.
“Ust Luga has been put on hold,” Fesco Transportation Group investor relations manager Stanislav Vartanyan said. “Currently there’s no point in speeding up the commissioning of this new facility under these circumstances.”
Fesco is the joint owner of the Ust-Luga terminal, owning 50% of St Petersburg’s largest port operator National Container Co, which is developing the project. NCC has already spent at least $175m. Cranes were bought but were not delivered, sources said.
Work will continue when the economy improves, but NCC is unable to say when.
“Volumes just vanished completely,” said Mr Vartranyan of containerised car parts imported via St Petersburg to local assembly plants. “They fell to nothing”.
In the Black Sea, Novorossiysk Commercial Sea Port’s terminal operations at Novorossiysk fell 11%.
But its Baltic terminal at the port of Baltiysk, at Kaliningrad saw falls of 33% in February, because it was heavily reliant on container traffic from automotive manufacturers.
Car parts for assembly at Russian manufacturers comprised about 15% of all containerised imports to Russia, according to Alexey Bezborodov, head of the Moscow-based InfraNews research agency. This has now dropped to 2%-3% in the last two months, he said.
NCSP’s Mikail Schur said ongoing expansion planned at Kaliningrad, for which the cost was undisclosed, was “to be adjusted to volumes” and “speed of implementation adjusted to the current market situation”. About $60m was thought to have been earmarked for development.
“As soon as the situation at Kaliningrad changes to former projects, then the project will be revived,” he said.
Automotive and electronic assembly plants at the Russian enclave shut down for December and January, severely affecting throughput at the terminal.
It began operating in April and does not compete with other Baltic ports, with traffic mainly from Germany, where car manufacturers like BMW are based.
Even St Petersburg’s second-largest terminal, Petrolesport, is slowing down an $850m, five-year expansion plan.
“We are playing for equipment that has already been ordered, and completing our ro-ro facility, but there’s nothing expansionary,” said N-Trans director of business development, Evgeny Zaltsman
He said capital expenditure was always discretionary, so rescheduling to meet demand did not mean any plans had been placed on hold.
Nevertheless Petrolesport has spare capacity for which it did not plan. It has allowed timber exporters to continue using their berths at St Petersburg, after originally telling them the facility would be closed to them by year’s end.
Questions also remain over the Lomonosov container and ro-ro terminal in the Baltic Sea, jointly owned by Mediterranean Shipping Co, and originally scheduled to open by as early as 2010.
The was one of many proliferating in the region, as Russian government policies sought to redirect container traffic from neighbouring Baltic ports where better infrastructure was established in Soviet times. (Neighbouring Baltic ports and Finland account for about one third of Russian Baltic traffic).
MSC was to fund around €300m and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development the balance according to reports.
MSC does not respond to media inquiries, but local executives believe the project has little chance of being established given the current downturn.