For years, the Port of Hamburg has been losing sea freight to its competitors, Rotterdam and Antwerp. In the meantime, it has fallen back to third place among European seaports in terms
of tonnage, and the gap has been increasing. The reasons for the loss of importance are manifold: handling fees are too high in comparison, the automation of processes lacks the latest standards,
and despite the deepening of the fairway, the Elbe River is still only navigable for fully loaded container giants at rising tide. The stagnation of volumes was aggravated by the war of the
Russians against Ukraine, which led to the loss of the harbor’s natural hinterland. But the city's policymakers are also partly to blame for the development. They have simply done too little for
the further development of the port.
Hence, a gloomy perspective? Not quite.
Containers no longer take center stage
Hope is raised for the maritime industry by a new master plan presented last Tuesday, which sets completely new priorities. The 230-page document, valid until 2040, marks a U-turn from the traditional port policy that was based on steady container growth to qualitative development.
“Container throughput is one economic indicator, but not the only one that is relevant,” emphasized Economics Senator, Melanie Leonhard when presenting the plan. “Hamburg, unlike other major ports, is itself an important market and site of industrial production. Goods that arrive here by vessel are not only handled here, but also consumed and directly processed,” she added.
A comparison of the containers handled in 2022 shows how far Hamburg has meanwhile fallen behind its competitors (in mio. TEU): Rotterdam: 14.4 / Antwerp13.5 / Hamburg 8,3.
Core mission of the new masterplan is to turn the harbor into a net zero innovation hub until 2040, based on digital data exchange between all relevant players, including terminal operators, trucking companies, customs authorities, shipping lines and logistics companies. To achieve this, the port area, which is heavily ramified and covers an area of 72 square kilometers, will be fully retained but restructured and split into different industrial zones. For example, a cluster for maritime technology and renewable energies is to be created in the southern port area, i.e. in direct vicinity to the large Airbus production plant and the University of Hamburg Harburg. This will primarily involve the production of green hydrogen, e-fuels, and ammonia. Airbus is also likely to benefit from the new scheme since the aircraft manufacturer plans to produce and market a hydrogen powered aircraft by 2035. A former coal-fired power plant in the port, that will be converted into an electrolyzer, will produce the necessary quantities of green hydrogen. Jens Meier, Head of the Hamburg Port Authority, which is responsible for port management, invited companies engaged in sustainable energy issues to settle there because the framework conditions could hardly be better for them. This also includes storage and processing activities.
In the eastern port area, a new business park, branded “Port and City Service Hub”, will be set up to attract companies whose mainstay is online trade. In addition, maritime service providers and classic logistics companies are also to be based there.
More innovative, greener, leaner, cleaner
The port’s traditional and by far largest business focus, the handling and storing of steel boxes, will be executed in the western part of the harbor known as the “Deep Sea Hub.” Dimension-wise, this is the largest area by far. Its connection to the public rail and road network is to be optimized. During their berthing period, vessels are to be supplied with energy produced by external power plants, which will significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Trucks and rail transports, which ensure the inflow and outflow of seaborne goods, are also to be decarbonized.
The plan does not specify specific phases for the implementation of the different targets. Nor do the city’s policymakers reveal how much public money will be channeled into the “Innovation Port” from now until 2045, in order to realize the many projects.
This has been criticized by industry and freight forwarding associations, including the opposition in Hamburg's state parliament (Conservative Party). There is a lack of clear prioritization of the measures and the scheme misses a fixed time schedule, critics say.
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