European ports prepare to greet giant Triple-E container ships from China
New Triple-E container vessels mean European destinations are having to undertake huge construction projects to welcome goods from China
A fleet of container ships so large that ports require radical surgery to accommodate them are on their way.
The new Triple-E ships, which will come into service this summer, are 400 metres long, wider than a motorway and taller than a 20-storey office block.
They will be able to carry 18,000 6.1-metre containers, known as TEUs - three times as many as the biggest container ships 15 years ago.
Hong Kong will be among at least five Chinese ports that will handle the Triple-Es, which will be the largest ships afloat.
If all the containers on a Triple- E were stacked on top of each other they would touch the stratosphere 46 kilometres above the earth. If they were unloaded on to a single train it would need to be 108 kilometres long.
Inside, you could squeeze 36,000 cars or 111 million pairs of sneakers.
Because they're so vast the Triple-Es - which stands for economy, energy efficiency and environmentally improved - will be able to move goods more cheaply and efficiently than current ships.
But, they will be far too big for most of the world's ports.
No port in North or South America is currently able to take the vessels, nor the Panama canal locks - designed for the last generation of container ships - which are due to open next year.
The Triple-Es will just about squeeze through the Suez canal, and will ply only the China to Europe route, delivering goods and returning with cargoes of scrap metal and plastic waste for recycling.
Maersk Line, a Danish shipping firm that has ordered 20 Triple-Es from South Korean shipbuilder Daewoo, said the ships were set to call on five Chinese ports - Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yantian , Xiamen and Ningbo .
Only a handful of European ports, including Felixstowe and Southampton in the UK, are equipped to handle them. Those that cannot are investing vast sums to make sure they can.
The UK is building a £1.5 billion (HK$17.5 billion) port 32 kilometres east of London's original ports. London Gateway, which is being bankrolled by Dubai's DP World, has just installed the first of 24 cranes which are 138 metres tall and designed specifically to reach up and across the Triple-Es' vast deck of containers.
Andrew Bowen, the project's director of engineering, said the port will be able to handle seven Triple-Es at the same time.
"There is very limited capacity for the biggest new ships at Felixstowe and Southampton, and it's very important that we as a country have the capacity to handle the largest vessels travelling the world," he said.
"If we don't have the capacity to handle them, it would be like if we didn't have an airport to handle the A380 [superjumbo planes] and you'd have to go to the continent to change planes."
As well as triggering the construction of new ports, growing freight traffic is also causing the reshaping of some the world's most historic ports, including Antwerp. The city has Europe's second biggest port, but is at risk of falling behind Dutch rival Rotterdam as most of Antwerp docks are unable to accept the last generation of container ships, let alone the Triple-Es.
But the Belgians have a solution. They are digging a very big hole - 1 kilometre long by 70 metres wide by 18 metres deep. In 2016, after 53 months of construction, the hole will become the world's largest lock.
It will enable the biggest ships to enter all of Antwerp's docks. The €340 million (HK$3.4 billion) project is central to the EU's Transport 2050 plan to cope with increasing trade.
Philippe Maystadt, president of the European Investment Bank, which is financing half of the money, said the lock "will benefit not only the port of Antwerp and Flanders but also Europe".
Some fear all the investment pumped into London Gateway, Antwerp and other ports could have a limited shelf life if ships continue to grow. But Maersk believes the vessels will be the biggest on the seas for some years to come. Maersk is the world's biggest shipping company with a fleet of more than 500 vessels.
Soren Toft, its vice-president of operations, said: "This is not about adding big ships because we like them, this is about adding capacity for our customers.
"Parts of the world cannot accommodate these [Triple-Es], but we believe these are the right and efficient ships for the Asia to Europe route."
But David Tozer, global manager for container ships at Lloyd's Register Group, warned that even bigger, 25,000-container capable ships, are perfectly feasible.
He said: "We've gone from a maximum of 5,000 containers in 1998 to 18,000 now.
"The technology is there to carry on getting bigger. It is absolutely massive business - almost everything that can be carried is carried in a container. And it's all about economies of scale."