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Ro/ro volumes surge at NWSA as cargo shippers flee container chaos

Breakbulk cargo, including high and heavy ro/ro, grew 25.6 percent in 2021 at the Northwest Seaport Alliance. Photo credit: NWSA

Port congestion and high container rates pushed roll on/roll off (ro/ro) cargo out of boxes and toward the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) in 2021, driving overall breakbulk volumes there up just over 25 percent, with port executives expecting the trend to strengthen further in 2022.

The surge in breakbulk tonnage was driven by rate increases on the container side, said Andre Elmaleh, senior manager of non-container business development at NWSA, which comprises the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. “The big factor is the increase in rates in the trans-Pacific trade for container ships,» he told JOC.com.

Container ships had served as the transport mode of choice for many of these ro/ro shippers but, thanks to the supply chain meltdown on the container side, that is no longer true, Elmaleh said. “Ro-ro became more reliable, faster, and cheaper,” to the benefit of NWSA, he said.

The NWSA believes it will top its 2021 breakbulk volume in 2022, Elmaleh said. “Our customers are all indicating another record year, with a potential 10 percent improvement over 2021,” he said.

Total breakbulk volumes at NWSA were 366,184 metric tons in 2021, up 25.6 percent from 2020’s 291,623 mt, according to a port spokesperson. The ports handled 246,411 mt of breakbulk in 2019.

Ro/ro construction equipment made up 67 percent of 2021’s tonnage, according to port data. High and heavy cargo also includes agricultural, machinery, and mining equipment. Ro/ro carriers calling NWSA include EUKOR Car Carriers, Hyundai GLOVIS, MOL Ro-Ro, “K” Line Ro-Ro, and NYK Ro-Ro.

Customers such as Caterpillar, John Deere, and Case New Holland Industrial are predicting increased demand for their products, Elmaleh said, particularly as newly funded infrastructure projects in the US are driving demand for construction equipment. That and agricultural equipment are expected to outpace demand for forestry equipment, but further growth in all sectors is expected, he said.

NWSA operates three breakbulk terminals that handle a substantial volume of automobiles as well as high and heavy cargo, Elmaleh said, but added, “We attract ro-ro carriers but do not do as much traditional lift-on, lift-off high and heavy project cargoes,” he said.