Just in time arrivals

How understanding port congestion can improve shipping efficiency

If you have ever worked in shipping, you will know how tedious it can be for a vessel to be stuck outside port. Time passes slowly when you are waiting at anchorage for hours, days, weeks or even months – often with no idea of how long before things start moving again. But if you are the one paying the bills, you will know that it is not just time that is slipping away, but money, too – lots of it.

Port congestion is a major cost to the shipping industry: escalating bills for Disbursements and port services, lost business through missing out on opportunities to carry other cargo, and reducing the future availability of vessels, which has the knock-on effect of increasing charter prices. Harbourside residents are also exposed to increased levels of pollution when more ships are backed up, waiting to dock. In short, nobody wins when ships are sitting idle outside port and all interested parties benefit if port congestion can be reduced.

When you understand how valuable information on port congestion can be, you’ll understand why there was such a demand for a port congestion tool from the industry. Disbursements or port costs, such as port duties, tugs, loading and unloading costs, make up a significant portion of any voyage’s operational expenses (OPEX).

So, it’s no surprise that the industry came to MarineTraffic looking for insights into port congestion, in a bid to help further increase efficiency and reduce costs. MarineTraffic answered with the Port Congestion tool.

For the first time, users have access to detailed, reliable and actionable data for every major commercial port on the planet; which can be used for more efficient planning and scheduling by ship operators, writing clauses and pricing for charter party agreements, comparison between ports and even streamlining improvements by port operators themselves. But above all, it takes the industry as a whole one step significantly closer to the goal of ‘Just In Time’ shipping.

While the industry has long relied on self-reporting and first-hand knowledge to assess congestion at port, MarineTraffic offers a never-before-seen level of precision. Users can choose any commercial port of the world and see how waiting times evolve week by week, at the port and its respective anchorage. They can also focus on a particular market segment, since all measures are broken down per vessel type and class.


Singapore Time at Port
Port congestion chart – Singapore


How does it work? For the last ten years, MarineTraffic has not only been developing an increasingly sophisticated global AIS ship tracking network, but also developing a database of maritime geometries, to amass the world’s most comprehensive set of port data.

After creating polygons for every major commercial port worldwide in the MarineTraffic database – which they constantly monitor and adjust accordingly – the team are able to capture all four major operations undertaken by a vessel upon each visit:

  1. Arrival at anchorage
  2. Departure from anchorage
  3. Arrival at port
  4. Departure from port

Once all four events are captured by the MarineTraffic system, we can extract actionable intelligence on time spent at anchorage, time spent at port and overall turnaround time; which includes the first two measures, plus any additional transit time from the anchorage to the berth.

Maintaining a reliable data set and avoid false results requires constant attention, when spoofing, technological malfunction or even vessel drifting can be misinterpreted as movement within the port.

Combining port geometries with the knowledge of where every ship on the planet is at any given moment, through AIS, can potentially generate huge volumes of valuable data about port operations worldwide.

The global coverage and level of accuracy MarineTraffic has achieved in this area is why the United Nations trust them to provide the data on all global port calls for their annual Review of Maritime Transport report.

Being able to track vessels through the whole lifecycle of their visits at a port, amasses a valuable historical data set on port congestion, which allows users to monitor how congestion levels evolve over time and make informed estimations over future performance.

But being aware of historical port congestion is not the same as being able to predict future congestion. Without understanding the factors at play, it’s impossible to make accurate predictions. However, the MarineTraffic research team are already investigating the factors which drive port congestion, by analyzing collected historical data with advanced AI algorithms. So, you can expect reliable predictive tools, such as model-based estimations of future congestion, in the coming years.

Rather than being a drag on the bottom line, sizeable port costs can become fertile ground for finding significant efficiency savings – if shipping companies, suppliers, shipping agents and port authorities have access to the right tools and data. If port time can be reduced, port charges for the vessel go down, while time at sea increases, allowing each vessel to rack up more miles per ton.

Accurate and actionable data is the key to effectively managing port congestion – or even, perhaps, eventually eliminating it entirely. One possible operational innovation such data could inspire is moving the industry towards is dynamic pricing, already employed by airports to distribute terminal and runway timeslots more efficiently.

With ports and ship operators able to manage and predict the duration of each voyage and each operation a vessel takes along the way with increasing precision, we come one step closer to the goal of Just In Time shipping; which, when achieved, will become a true game-changer for the industry, inspiring significant efficiency advances and profound transformation over the coming decades.

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Alex King
Alex King is a British journalist based in Athens, who covers humanitarian issues, alternative culture and travel in the region.