Five key trends for UK ports in 2020

2021/07/30 at 2:00 PM

The port sector is essential to the economy of the United Kingdom with around 95 per cent of all import and export tonnage being transported by sea. Below we present the highlights from the report to understand what processes took place in British ports against the backdrop of the pandemic and Brexit in the past year.

In 2020 the tonnage handled by the ports of the United Kingdom decreased by 9 per cent compared to the previous year. The UK ports together handled 438.9 million tonnes of cargo, according to the annual report released by the British government in mid-July. All the cargo groups at UK major ports declined in 2020, but liquid bulk was affected the most due to the lack of demand for crude oil and oil products.

The international traffic declined by 10 per cent in terms of tonnage (to 343.2 million tonnes). The European Union remained the largest partner in terms of import and export through the British ports despite Brexit. The volume of goods transported between the UK and EU accounted for 190 million tonnes (44 per cent of the total major ports traffic). Asia experienced the greatest absolute tonnage decline among all the regions of the world, 24 per cent down in 2020. This allowed the American region to become the third-largest international route for British ports after the EU and other European and Mediterranean countries.

Teesport, source: PD Ports

Leading ports: same top but fewer volumes

The top five major ports of the UK by the tonnage in 2020 were London, Grimsby & Immingham, Milford Haven, Liverpool, Tees & Hartlepool. This top remains unchanged from 2019, with the exception of Tees & Hartlepool which replaced Southampton (which is 6th now). But if you look at the volume changes you’ll see a big difference. In terms of tonnage, last year, almost all the major ports handled 4 to 16 per cent less than in 2019. Dover, the kingdom’s largest Ro-Ro port, experienced the greatest decline in absolute terms (1.6 million units). The overall cargo vessel arrivals at main British ports declined by 14 per cent last year.

Liquid bulk sharp decline

The major UK ports handled 165.6 million tonnes of liquid bulk last year. It still accounted for the highest proportion of all the cargo groups (39 per cent). But its volumes have been declining in the last decades. In 2020, the fall in traffic was caused by the decline in shipments of oil products which fell by 17.1 million tonnes. Liquified gas was the only liquid bulk category that saw an increase in 2020, 1 per cent up (0.1 million tonnes).

Containers: the lockdown echo

When measured in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) the Lo-Lo traffic through UK ports decreased by 7 per cent in 2020, to 9.7 million TEUs. One of the main reasons was the Covid-19 lockdown on manufacturing in China which caused the container port decrease since February 2020 as well as lockdowns in most economies in the world in the following months. Lo-Lo tonnage fell noticeably in 2020 between the UK and all the world regions except the EU (which saw an increase).

Ro-Ro rolled down

In terms of tonnage Ro-Ro traffic through British ports fell by 5 per cent last year. But from the unitised perspective the decline looks menacing. It fell by 31 per cent, to 12.3 million units. 3.8 million units among them were Road goods vehicles, 3.2 million units is a number of unaccompanied goods trailers. The trade (import/export) of motor vehicles reached 2.7 million units. Also, the UK ports handled 2 million passenger vehicles and 600,000 rail wagons or shipborne trailers.

Liverpool2 container terminal extension, source: Peel Ports Group

The number of passenger vehicles shortened by more than three times compared to 2019 and reached the lowest level since 2000. The trade vehicles volume decreased by a third. The accompanied road goods vehicles which require the driver to stay with the vehicle fell by 10 per cent, in terms of units, mainly because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Deep-sea freight: the historical changes

The 19 per cent decline of the deep sea freight were the result of all freight groups fall, especially liquid bulk (crude oil and oil products). In 2020, major UK ports handled 98.1 million tonnes of deep-sea cargo (against the background of 120.9 million tonnes in 2019).

Last year saw the greatest change for deep-sea Lo-Lo traffic within the last 20 years, falling by 15 per cent. Top 5 deep-sea container trade routes in 2020: China (-9 per cent), Singapore (-18 per cent), India (-10 per cent), USA (-32 per cent), Malaysia (-3 per cent).

Nevertheless, the USA remained the largest sea trading partner to the UK in terms of the tonnage handled. South Korea became an economy with the largest absolute increase in trade (+1.3 million tonnes).

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