Updated: Mega Ships

Update: 10/26/06

The New York Times reported this week that the electorate in Panama has voted by a wide margin to approve $5B+ to widen the canal.

Original Post: 10/11/06

Having just reviewed The Box about containerization, I’m probably a little over-sensitized to container shipping issues, but the article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“Giants of the Sea”) jumped out at me.

They’re now building ships that can hold 11,000 containers, so we can get all those material goods from China. They’re going to have to widen the Panama Canal, and the Port of Long Beach is going to spend $800M to replace a bridge with a taller one.

Let’s hope no one has any thoughts about bringing one up the Columbia.

13 responses to “Updated: Mega Ships”

  1. …actually, I believe that the Port of Portland has already planned on dredging the Columbia to allow these ships to dock at some of its facilities (presumably those that are downriver of some of the more narrow bridges).

    This does mean continued trade for Portland, continued jobs at the Port, etc. It’s a big deal to be able to accommodate these new, larger ships, as apparently they will be the wave of the future. Ports that can accommodate them will grow, and those that won’t, will stagnate. Though, as is noted in this article, Portland is not considered a “super port” and has no plans to become one:


    They’re dredging the Columbia River to maintain the ability to accommodate 43-foot drafts. This means that the Hugo will fit when not fully loaded, but the Emma Maersk doesn’t stand a chance.

    I think the best we can hope for is that the dredging will be done in a responsible manner, and that nothing worse will have to happen.

  2. …actually, I believe that the Port of Portland has already planned on dredging the Columbia to allow these ships to dock at some of its facilities

    No. The dredging the Port is planning will not make it possible for these ships to use the port. It will allow some of the smaller ships that currently use the port to carry more cargo. One of the arguments against the dredging is that it is an investment in serving ships that are no longer being built and are not going to be economically competitive.

  3. I wonder, is there room for these big ships to turn around in Portland, or do they have to run in reverse? I am not sure if any ports up here can handle these ships without serious upgrades. Up here, Puget Sound is deep, but we do not have much capcacity as far as road and rail. The containers are off-loaded, and when they end up on BNSF, they are headed through the King St. Tunnel, and then up the shore of Puget Sound to Everett, where they head East to Cascade Tunnel. It is nearing capacity. BNSF has not got around to upgrading Stampede Pass, which if the tunnels were capable of handling double-stacks, could not only benefit BNSF, but also Union Pacific.

    Say is there room in Astoria for a small container terminal? How much would it cost to upgrade the rail line there?

  4. I heard someone say (probably Bill Wyatt speaking at City Club, but I won’t swear) that in addition to the rail connection issue, Astoria simply lacked the available real estate for a major container port.

    And I believe that Ross is correct, the channel dredging on the Columbia is NOT for this class of ship, but smaller vessels.

  5. If it was only 1 or 2 ships that could be accomodated, then it would be un-economical. The Pacific Northwest Ports had a 24-hour steaming time advantage over the California Ports, but we lost it to Southern Cal due to a little trench called the Alameda Corridor. It allows Frieght Trains to bypass surface crossings, saving time getting to the staging yards for Transcontinental Departures. Now even inland cities are having to make some decisions to increase traffic efficiency due to the effects of these big ships. In Reno, Nevada, a trench was dug in Downtown Reno to accomodate the extra trains now on the Overland Route.

    I saw some common sense solutions to make these containers flow through this region more smoothely, and one or two exotic solutions in a study by the Washington Public Ports Association. One of the exotic solutions would be to construct a connecting line between the BNSF line in Eastern Washington from Ellensberg to Ritzeville. The biggest obstacle to that is crossing the Columbia River. I-90 goes down Ryegrass Hill and crosses the river, and then goes up another hill. Both are steep. For a rail line, it would have to be a high-level crossing, probably very expensive. Still, if Stampede takes up the slack from traffic from Tacoma and Seattle, then this would see a big short-cut for freight trains getting to Spokane and points east.

    As for common-sense solutions, it would be just to fix the wye’s where the port trackage joins the main-lines. They are time consuming, and some frieght coming from the port has to go through UP’s Argo yard just to get to the BNSF mainline!

  6. Portland has an insignificant share of west coast container traffic and always will, important though it may be to some Eastern Oregon food processors. I doubt we are a rounding error in the volume of traffic through LA/Long Beach.
    The bulk of the tonnage in and out of Portland is grain, bulk minerals and autos, with some breakbulk…though T-2 seems deserted these days.
    The deeper channel will not even accommodate existing container ships that are full, let alone Post Panamex ships.
    The move of Nike’s warehouse to Memphis belies the fantasy put forward by the Port that freight is our future.
    We can move the freight we need to move through better management of our road and rail systems and through shifting non-essential trips by offering people real transportation options.
    PDX is the more important gateway for both passengers and cargo for key traded sector industries.

  7. I would not be suprised if UP and BNSF tried something to get more container traffic in the Pacific Northwest. Mexico is building a port on their West Coast on a rail line that heads for a connection with Kansas City Southern. UP and BNSF might lose buisness when that port gets going. Then there is the before-mentioned Panama Canal Widening, and a proposed canal across Nicaragua. Those improvements would also reduce BNSF and UP’s share of the container traffic if these ships can once again go from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, and dock in Ports like Texas, Lousiana, and Florida, where other railroads are waiting.

    As long as Container Traffic continues to increase, we are going to see a lot of bottlenecks. It seems other ports are trying to get a piece of the action. Prince Rupert, B.C. is thinking of getting in on the container action, and Canadian National Railway is working on improving thier line to get that cargo to not just to Ontario, but to the American Midwest. Canadian National has been on a buying spree since privatization, and not just of Canadian Railroads, but American and Mexican Railroads, to form what they call the NAFTA system.

  8. Say is there room in Astoria for a small container terminal? How much would it cost to upgrade the rail line there?

    This is feasible. But building a port would probably be the cost problem. Astoria would be a much better location than Portland, hours of difference in sailing time.

    As for the railroad, it’s a relatively easy jog on the line that exists. If real traffic was going to be run along the line though the Portland & Western, BNSF, UP, and whoever else that would be involved could run that track in about 2-3 months easy. Especially if they NEW a port was going to be built.

    But I digress, that isnt’ happening, too much pressure from PDX would destroy any attempt at such an endeavor, no matter how intelligent it would be.

  9. I bet the vote on expanding the Panama Canal had nothing to do with this new anouncement of a massive land deal between the Port of Seattle, King County, WSDOT, and BNSF. King County will trade King County International Airport to the Port, and the Port will buy the Woodinville Subdivision from BNSF. WSDOT is chipping in to improve the Stampede Pass Route to allow double stacked container trains. Now the Woodinville Sub might go trail, but there might be a saving grace. Boeing relies on Just-in time delivery of parts as they have transitioned to a moving assembly line at the Renton Plant. The 737 Fuselages are assembled in Wichita, and shipped by rail to Renton, they go via the Stevens Pass Route, then come down via Puget Sound, then get onto the Eastside Lake Washington Route at Black River Junction near Tukwilla. The longest 737 yet is too big to go via Black River and Downtown Renton. The new 747-LCF is too big for the Renton Runway.(40 years ago they tried landing the 747 prototype at Renton, did some damage to the jet, the runway is too short). The best alternative would be to use the whole line, from Snohomish to Renton. If the 737-900ER sells more, the $30 million cost of relocating the Wilburton Tunnel as I405(Washington) is expanded, will seem worthwhile. A 737 at list prices is much more than that.($30 million is almost the discount price)



    As long any trail in the Woodinville Sub does not doom the rail line, I am all for this idea of freight mobility. Problem is passenger airlines are going to be in big trouble, as an alternative to Sea-Tac has just been taken off the market. As for the Woodinville Sub, both rails and trails can be accomodated, in some areas, it is 100ft wide.

  10. I don’t think Astoria will ever work as a major port. Aside from the lack of land needed to build a massive container terminal, there’s only one rail line and no freeways. Compare this to major ports (Seattle, SF, LA, even Portland) — a convergence of multiple rail lines and freeways.

    Portland doesn’t have a future in freight either, except as a niche market. Even with a 43 foot draw, the ships will continue to get bigger. What’s next? Dredge to 50 feet so we can keep the even bigger ships coming? And what happens when we need a 55 foot draw…?

    Remember when we had the World’s Biggest Floating Drydock, built (IIRC) with tax money? I think it was supposed to help Portland’s maritime economy, or something. Anyway, the Port sold it. Now it’s in the Caribbean or some place. Lots of confidence in our maritime future there…

  11. To “upgrade” the railroad from Portland to Astoria…

    The track itself is in OK condition; but for heavy/long intermodal trains would need to be relaid with CWR (welded rail) and concrete or at the least, new wood ties. Probably $1-$2M per mile; the line is about 95 miles long from Willbridge to downtown Astoria.

    Crossing signals are mostly up-to-date on the east end. Would need new signals on the west end, about $150,000 per crossing; assume some crossings will simply be closed, or allowed to remain as is (crossbucks only, or crossbucks and a stop sign.)

    There are a number of older overpasses that would likely need to be removed as they wouldn’t meet overhead clearances. So reconstruct those overpasses or build new roads to serve the same area…

    There are three movable (read: drawbridges) bridges that are HAND operated. They would most certainly need to be replaced. Today they are usually left in an open position except when a train needs to be moved. All three of these bridges are in the western-most portion of the line that is currently not served.

    There is a dike that failed last year (or earlier this year) that the railroad was built atop. I believe it needs to be replaced and the railroad rebuilt. The dike was owned by a dike/flood control agency that has since been disbanded, and the railroad had an easement or other right to operate atop it (but doesn’t own the dike). Further, ODOT owns the land underneath the railroad, but legally not the dike. So that would need to be resolved, and fixed.

    Do block signals need to be installed? If so that’s an additional cost.

    What about passing sidings? There are few on the route; and not one that would accomodate a large intermodal stack train. Figure one every 10 miles, minimum length of siding around 5,000-6,000 feet, up to 8,000 feet. Plus land acquisition costs for the sidings.

    There is one tunnel on the route that would need to be enlarged or blown up, or the line re-routed around it. I can’t remember the specifics, I’ve only ridden a train on the line once and the tunnel is in an out-of-the-way location by car or foot.

    My guess is around $200-300M, with half of that cost going towards bridges and dikes, the other half going towards the actual railroad and signals. And that doesn’t even answer the question of where to build such a facility in or around Astoria; Tongue Point is simply too small (and it was designed as a Naval Base with long, narrow docks – there is no space to store containers, nor is the area large enough to accomodate a large train and the various cranes to load/unload ships and trains.) There was talk of building an ethanol plant there, and the track would have to be upgraded to accomodate unit corn trains, but that discussion has died off…

  12. Doesn’t Warrenton have quite a lot of undeveloped land along the River? There is the dump (recycling center) out there and a small park. I guess this is the site for the LNG facility, though. There’s vacant land on both sides of the Skipanon River and other industry further west.

    But the LNG facility, if built, would need improved rail connections, anyway. Got to have safety with that stuff–at least as far as the public is concerned.

    Looks like the lower Columbia needs a comprehensive strategy. I have this question for EvergreenTransit Fan: ever dreamed of a canal connecting the Columbia River to Puget Sound? I’ve been thinking lately about how close the Cowlitz River comes to both the Chehalis and to the Black River. Could be an inland waterway–alas, not enough for any commercial traffic, though.

  13. Probably not. I am not sure if it would be feasible. Would probably be a better bit triple-tracking or even quadruple-tracking the rail line(if possible) to add capacity. We are prone to Earthquakes. Still have arguments over how to replace a quake-damaged freeway.

    As for the idea of a canal, it may be possible. I saw a piece on Modern Marvels on the History Channel about the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It is a network of inland canals and rivers up and down the East Coast. I at first thought of the idea of a Pacific version, but with all the mountain ranges, the idea lasted 5 minutes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *