New home for empty containers

One of the multitude of challenges faced by Freight Victoria during the pandemic has been the accumulation of a surplus of empty shipping containers.

Look no further than Footscray Road and you’ll see a giant stack of shipping containers near Appleton Dock Road that’s grown steadily over recent months.

It’s the largest and most visible symptom of the pandemic’s impact on the global supply chain.

It’s also the result of a deal brokered between Freight Victoria, the Port of Melbourne and logistics company Qube to find somewhere to put the growing surplus.

Empty containers are normally kept in what are known as empty container parks or ECPs - privately owned businesses contracted by the shipping lines to store and repair containers between uses.

But as the ECPs filled up, the situation became critical. New real estate had to be found.

That’s when Freight Victoria stepped in to find a solution.

Freight Victoria Director of Ports and Intermodal, Andrew Newman, said the pandemic accentuated the normal imbalance that occurs in Victoria’s export-import trade.

“We export mostly in 20-foot containers and we import mostly in 40-footers,” he said.

“But as Victorians increased their purchases of household goods during the pandemic, so too did the number of 40-foot containers coming through the heads. And that’s what’s led to the stockpile of empty 40-foot containers.

“Normally, there’s capacity on ships leaving the Port of Melbourne to take all those empties, but a combination of fewer ship visits and a few other factors have left us with this growing stockpile.”

So isn’t the obvious solution to pack our exports into 40-foot containers?

“That sounds simple, but it wouldn’t work,” Andrew said.

“Our exports are mostly commodities like grain or produce. If you were to fill a 40-foot container with grain, you’d never lift it off the ground, let alone be able to carry it legally on a rail wagon or truck.”

He said the container imbalance was a global issue, with Chinese exporters paying all-time high prices to rent 40-foot containers while we can’t get rid of them fast enough.

“Eventually, the market will right itself,” he said.

“It’s classic demand and supply. We’re already seeing the shipping lines gradually boosting capacity and I expect things will return to normal within a few months.”

He said while the stockpile on Footscray Road was intended as a short-term solution, it was also a model for how Freight Victoria would like empty containers to be handled.

“Topping up a vessel with empty containers occurs in the last hour or so before it leaves, so you get a lot of traffic between the port and the ECPs as the trucks shuttle the empties.

“It’s one of the biggest generators of truck traffic in the inner west, and it can happen at all hours of the day or night.

“Ideally, you’d store empty containers near the port, so that you’re reducing the travel from ECP to vessel and avoiding residential streets.”