The Largest Available Containership, 1970-2015 (in TEUs)
The principle of economies of scale is fundamental to the economics
of maritime transportation as the larger the ship, the lower the cost
per unit transported. This trend has particularly been apparent in bulk
and containerized shipping. For instance, the
evolution of containerization,
as indicated by the size of the largest available containership, has
been a stepwise process. Changes are rather sudden and correspond to
the introduction of a new class of containership by a shipping company
(Maersk Line tended to be the main early mover), quickly followed by
others. The major ship classes include L "Lica" Class (1981; 3,430 TEU),
C10 Class (1988; 4,500 TEU), R "Regina" Class (1996; 6,000 TEU), S "Sovereign" Class (1997; 8,000
TEU), E "Emma" Class (2006; 12,500 TEU) and "Triple E"
class (2013; 18,000 TEU).
A new class generally takes the name of its first ship. There are
some variations concerning how many containers can be carried by a containership
depending on the method of calculation. For instance, for the Emma class,
a ship could carry about 15,200 TEUs of containers if they were all
empty, which represents all the available container slots. If all the
carried containers were loaded with an average load of 14 tons per container,
then about 11,000 TEUs could be carried (25% less). The official capacity
figures used is 12,500 TEUs, which considers that containerships carry
a mix of loaded and empty containers, but containerships are usually able to
carry slightly more. Thus, container capacity figures should be treated
with some caution as they are dependent on the cargo mix and
estimated in a conservative fashion.
Since the 1990s, three substantial steps took place in the
evolution of containership sizes. The first involved
a jump from 4,000 to 8,000 TEUs, effectively moving beyond the "panamax"
threshold of around 5,000 TEU. This threshold is particularly important
as it indicates the physical capacity of the Panama Canal and thus has
for long been an important operational limitation in maritime shipping.
Most modern container ports were designed to handle ships of the
Panamax class since this standard has been around for a century.
Ships of the "C10" class were introduced by APL in 1988 and were the first post-panamax
ships with 14 containers across deck with a capacity of 4,500
TEUs (a panamax ship is limited to 13 containers across).
The second step took place in the 2000s to reach the 12,500 TEU level,
which is essentially a "suezmax" level, or a "new panamax" class when
the extended Panama Canal will come online in 2016. However, this
12,500 TEU capacity is assessed from a ship fully loaded
with containers averaging 14 tons. Using a load
configuration that includes empties as well can result in
effective capacities of 15,200 TEU for a E class ship. From a
maritime shipper's perspective, using larger containerships is a straightforward
process as it conveys economies of scale and thus lowers costs per TEU
carried. From a port terminal perspective, this places intense pressures
in terms of infrastructure investments, namely portainers.
A third step is unfolding. In 2011, China Shipping Container Lines took delivery of the
first container ships whose theoretical capacities is of 14,100
TEUs, setting a new landmark above the 14,000 threshold. However, the range of ports that can
accommodate these ships is limited, so their pendulum service
configuration is scheduled along the East Asia - Europe route. Later
in 2011, Maersk announced the order of a new generation of 18,000
TEU ships, dubbed "Triple E" vessels, the first delivered in
2013. The 18,000 TEU threshold was overtaken in 2014 when ships of
more than 19,000 were introduced. This step is likely to level
around 20,000 TEU which is close to the limit of the Strait of
Several converging factors underline that further economies of scale
in maritime shipping are unlikely to unfold within the foreseeable future,
or at least would come at a high cost.
The more economies of scale are applied to maritime shipping, the lower
the number of ports able to handle such ships which limits commercial
options and accessibility. Economies of scale involve higher costs for
inland operations as a large quantity of containers arrive at once and
must be handled effectively to maintain a level of service. In all the
dimensions it involves, economies of scale require capital intensiveness
in infrastructure and equipment (ships, portainers, terminal facilities)
that is prone to risk. The challenge is no longer about economies of
scale, but about finding paying cargo to fill the ships. It is
therefore a possibility that the optimal size of a containership
would be in the 8,000 to 10,000 TEUs range.