Inside Australia’s Biggest Container Ports: How Do They Work? [The Complete Guide]

International trade via ocean freight is essential to Australia’s national supply chain and economic growth. As an island nation, we rely heavily on ocean ports to connect us to the rest of the world and ensure our exports remain competitive.

Approximately 98% of Australia’s trade is conducted through container ports, It is no surprise then that ports handle at least 8 million TEU of cargo every year.

But exactly how do ports work? If you’re looking for a detailed explanation, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on Australia’s largest container ports, specifying volume statistics, how their operations work and the contribution they deliver to the Australian economy.

Overview of modern Australian container ports

Australia’s largest container ports receive an influx of both international and domestic cargo.  These include ports in all Australian capital cities, but also some of the smaller ports. Below, we’ll take a look at:

  • Port Botany
  • Port of Melbourne
  • Port of Brisbane
  • Port of Freemantle
  • Port of Port Hedland
  • Port of Darwin
  • Port of Newcastle

We’ll also look at container terminal operators, and how they interact with these ports.

Port Botany

The Port of Botany in New South Wales

Port Botany is the largest container port in the state of New South Wales. Operating 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, Port Botany’s central role is to facilitate the importation of goods into New South Wales and the export of goods to global customers.

Located in Sydney, Port Botany handles 2.5 million TEU with a maximum capacity of over 7 million TEU. Its significant infrastructure can support ships carrying up to 15,000 TEU – with most of its work being container shipping.

The port boasts 12 container berths and 3,792 metres of container quay line. Its infrastructure is overseen by three container terminals operated by DP World, Patrick Terminals and Hutchison Ports (who we’ll discuss more about below).

The port also features two bulk liquid berths, tailored to handle bitumen, chemicals fuel and gas.

Rise of Port Botany’s on-dock rail

Port Botany has an extremely well established on-dock railway infrastructure. It is therefore not surprising that they have the highest container volume transported by rail throughout the country (being 440,000 TEUs every year). On-dock rail remains a key part of the port’s overall strategy to boost the number of containers that are transported by railroad.

NSW Ports have announced their commitment to increasing the port’s on-dock rail capacity to 3 million TEU. This has involved a direct $190 million investment in the Patricks terminal, and a large-scale project set to be complete in 2023. Marika Calfas, the CEO of NSW Ports, said the project will “deliver significant benefits for importers and exporters, with 33% faster train turnaround times and increased rail windows”.

Port of Melbourne

The Port of Melbourne is the largest container port in Australia, handling over 2.88 million TEU every year. It boasted a milestone of 3.02 million TEU in the 2019-20 financial year, and enjoys a total trade of more than 91 million revenue tonnes.

There are around 3,000 vessels that visit the port every year, with 7,890 containers and 6,969 motor vehicles passing through the port every single day on average. According to Brendan Bourke, the Port’s CEO, around 75% of the trade that arrives is in containers. The port’s total trade value is about $110 billion.

The Port of Melbourne in Victoria

With around 21 kilometres of waterfront, a 14-metre shipping channel draught and over 30 commercial berths, the Port handles virtually all types of cargo. This includes breakbulk, dry bulk and  liquid bulk, with commodities like steel, timber, paper, iron, sugar, cement, grain, crude oil and molasses.

The Port is also home to a range of container terminal operators, including DP World, Patrick Terminals, Toll Stevedores, Toll Shipping, Searoad, ExxonMobil and Victoria International Container Terminal Ltd.

Port Melbourne’s strategy for the next 30 years

In 2020, the Port released their 30-year Port Development Strategy 2050 which outlines a detailed roadmap for its development over the next three decades.

The project involves an investment in ten different infrastructure projects, including the significant Port Rail Transformation Project (PRTP) which is seeking to transport more freight via railway.

In March 2021, WSP and Seymour Whyte Constructions were contracted to develop new rail infrastructure at the port as part of this significant project. This includes a rail terminal that will interface with the Swanson Dock East container terminal.

“Our 30-year Port Development Strategy provides a clear plan to meet and enable sustainable trade growth over the long term,” Brendan Bourke told Infrastructure Magazine.

“The PRTP is an important part of this plan. As Australia’s largest container and general cargo port, it’s critical that we maintain a long-term investment view so that we continue to meet the freight needs of Victoria and south-east Australia”.

Port of Brisbane

The Port of Brisbane is a vital economic hub for Queensland, one of the country’s fastest growing container ports and currently the Sunshine State’s largest multi-cargo port.

Situated on the Brisbane River, the Port of Brisbane boasted a total of 1.3 million TEUs in the 2019-20 financial year, equating to around 31 million tonnes of trade. With 29 berths (including 9 deep-water container berths), over 2,300 ships call to Brisbane Port every year.

There are also nine 300m container berths, each operated by Patrick, DP World Brisbane and Brisbane Container terminals respectively.

The Port of Brisbane in Queensland

New Port of Brisbane freight train connection?

According to a 2015 Australian Infrastructure Audit, container trading in the Port of Brisbane is set to increase 300% by the year 2045.

A billion-dollar rail route is proposed to connect Melbourne to Brisbane via Queensland, New South Wales and regional Victoria, extending 1,715 kilometres.

The plan is to end the line at Acacia Ridge, so around 40 kilometres from Brisbane Port. However, the plan does not involve a direct connection to the Port.

The Queensland and Australian Governments have now begun to undertake a $1.5 million Port of Brisbane Strategic Rail Access Study in order to assess a committed freight link to Brisbane Port. But a business case won’t come to fruition until 2022.

Port of Fremantle

The Port of Fremantle is Western Australia’s largest cargo port, handling 32.6 million mass tonnes of cargo and 783,437 TEU in the 2019-2020 financial year. The Port also boasted the import of nearly 78,000 vehicles and the handling of $31.21 billion worth of trade.

Around 16,000 vessels were handled in that financial year, with its primary import being liquid bulk and export being dry bulk.

Some of the primary container trade commodities included metals (34,982 TEU), furniture (25,953 TEU) and agricultural & industrial machinery (22,068 TEU).

The Port of Fremantle in Western Australia

Port of Fremantle’s new 10-year leases

The two container terminals at the Port are operated by DP World (Berths CT1 and CT2) and Patrick (Berths CT3 and CT4).

Both Patrick and DP World recently signed 10-year leases with the Port for these terminals, coming into effect in January 2021. The Port has the option to extend this term by up to another 11 years.

“Importantly,” said Acting Fremantle Ports CEO, Sean Craig, “we have secured a significant capital commitment to upgrade the terminal facilities and a charging structure that provides price certainty for WA shippers”.

Indeed, the lease agreements have secured the terminal operators’ investment into the port’s equipment and facilities, with an established structure on infrastructure charges. Both DP World and Patrick have also agreed that berth lengths will be equal between themselves.

Port of Port Hedland

Operated by the Pilbara Ports Authority, the Port of Port Hedland is the world’s largest bulk export port, primarily facilitating the export of salt, lithium and iron ore.

It is located in the aptly named Port Hedland, a town in the Pilbara Region in Western Australia, and handled 3,000 vessel visits in 2020.

Managing around 532.2 million tonnes of trade in 2019-20 financial year, numerous berths and operators work out of the Port of Hedland including leading mining companies BHP, Roy Hill Iron Ore and the Fortescue Metals Group:

  • PH 1-4 (Pilbara Ports Authority)
  • Nelson Point Berths A-D (BHP)
  • Finucane Island Berths A-D (BHP)
  • Anderson Point Berths 1-5 – (Fortescue Metals Group)
  • Stanley Point Berths 1-2 – (Roy Hill Iron Ore)
The Port of Port Hedland in Western Australia

Port Hedland achieves record results in 2020-21

The Authority recently announced record results for the 2020-21 financial year, achieving a total throughput of 724.7 million tonnes. The port handled around $155 billion worth of commodities that year, according to Authority’s CEO Roger Johnston, which was 29% more than the previous year.

“This is a testament to the ports continuing to operate at full capacity throughout COVID-19, with Pilbara Ports Authority navigating border closures and strict maritime regulations to deliver safe and reliable operations for the benefit of the resources sector and the State of Western Australia,” he said.

Port Hedland was also named Port of the Year for the 2020 Australian Shipping and Maritime Industry Awards. It also, for the first time, achieved approval from biosecurity authorities to receive maritime freight direct from international ports.

Port of Darwin

The Port of Darwin is often known as Australia’s ‘northern gateway’ for our Asian trading partners. Operated by Darwin Port Operations, it’s not only critical for trade but also for the support to offshore oil & gas fields in the Arafura and Timor Seas.

In the 2019-2020 financial year, the Port boasted an export of 393,614 heads of cattle and 530,985 tonnes of dry bulk, while also importing 4,897 motor vehicles and handling 21,312.5 TEU.

Port of Darwin in Northern Territory

There are four berths at the Port’s Easter Arm Wharf, operated by QUBE Ports and LINX Stevedoring. There’s also the 300-metre quay length passenger terminal at Fort Hill Wharf.

The Port is involved in a wide range of maritime commercial activities, ranging from pilotage and the import of cargo to the servicing of cruise ships and military vessels. It also facilitates the movement of live exports, heavy lift cargo, bulk materials and bulk liquids.

Port of Newcastle

The Port of Newcastle is another major port in New South Wales, handling around $26 billion worth of trade every year.

It oversees approximately 4,400 ship movements and facilitates the movement of 164 million tonnes of cargo every year. 2,205 ships visited the Port in 2020, the bulk of which carried coal. Indeed, coal makes up around 96% of the port’s trade. QUBE Ports & Bulk, LINX Cargo and Newcastle Stevedores are the currently licenced stevedoring services at the Port.

Port of Newcastle in New South Wales

There are a range of ongoing projects being undertaken at the Port, including the development of a Multi-Purpose Deepwater Terminal. This will be an automated container terminal development at the Port’s Mayfield site and is planned to improve access to heavy vehicles, reduce delays, costs and double handling, as well as provide more land for infrastructure and other facilities.

The Port, however, is subject to a TEU cap, favouring containerised cargo travelling via Port Botany and Port Kembla. With limited container infrastructure at Newcastle, it has been handling around 10,000 TEUs per year since 2014. When the port was privatised, NSW agreed that it would pay compensation to Botany and Kembla operators if container traffic at Newcastle exceeded 30,000 TEUs per year (adjusted annually).

How ICE is Managing NSW’s New Intercity Fleet (NIF) Trains Discharging in Port Kembla

Port Kembla sees huge amounts of vehicle imports as well as specialising in the handling of large project cargo. For the NIF program, the ability to load cargo directly onto the Port’s on-dock rail infrastructure has been critical. The rail facility efficiently connects to the broader Sydney and regional NSW rail network.

Port Kembla continues to demonstrate its role as a key trade gateway, with the arrival of NSW’s New Intercity Fleet trains – the first new intercity train to be introduced in NSW in 49 years. A full fleet of 554 rail carriages is being imported through the port. 

International Cargo Express is acting as the executive agent on the operation which involves unloading the rail carriages from the vessel by dock truck and mafi trailer before lifting them by crane directly onto the on-dock rail infrastructure, from where they were towed by locomotive to Eveleigh in Sydney.

The New Intercity Fleet train will service thousands of customers travelling between Sydney and the Central Coast, Newcastle, the Blue Mountains and the South Coast. 

Understanding the Role of Container Terminal Operators

A container terminal operator does not simply operate terminals. They’re also critical investors in the construction and operation of a terminal. A CTOs’ role is highly diversified, and includes, for example:

  • Warehousing solutions
  • Empty container storage
  • Facilitating vessel voyages
  • Taking containers off vehicles (whether they be ships, trucks or trains)
  • Cargo tracking
  • Managing biosecurity / quarantine requirements
  • Strong goods

Usually, ports enter long-term lease contracts with container terminal operators which generally allows those operators the exclusive use of their part of the port. For example, DP World entered into a 50-year lease with the Port of Melbourne in 2015.

Who are the main container terminal operators in Australia?

The main CTOs in Australia are Patricks, Hutchison, DP World and AA Terminals. We’ll consider each of these operators below, outlining the importance of each operator to Australia’s economy.

Patricks

Patrick Terminals (commonly referred to as Patrick) is one of the country’s leading terminal operators, currently owned by Qube Holdings and Brookfield Asset Management.

The terminal has handled 1,472 vessels over the past 12 months and boasts a massive 3.11 million TEUs handled each year.

With 91 autostrads and 3.9 kilometres of quay line, the terminal uses world-class technology to facilitate the movement of goods in vital strategic locations across Australia.

Patrick Terminal

The operator has handled an impressive:

Hutchison

Hutchison is one of the world’s leading port investors and operators, present at 53 ports across 27 different countries. In Australia, they’re located at the Port Botany and the Port of Brisbane.

Hutchison Ports Sydney (Port Botany) is located at Terminal 3. It’s a 49-hectare site, features 4 berths and a 1,300 quay line. With 4 quay cranes, 12 automated stacking cranes and an on-site empty container storage facility, the Sydney site operates 24/7 and is one of the country’s primary international terminal.

Hutchison Ports Brisbane (Port of Brisbane) features 2 berths and a 660m quay line. This terminal also has 4 quay lines, 6 automated stacking cranes and an on-site empty container storage facility. Located at Berths 11 and 12, it boasts as one of the fastest-growing container ports Australia has.

Hutchinson Terminal Port

DP World

DP World is Australia’s largest container port operator, offering logistics and stevedoring services to businesses shipping goods. They’ve established operations at Brisbane (Fisherman Islands Terminal), Melbourne (Swanson Dock West), Fremantle and Port Botany.

Every year, DP World oversees 1,700 vessels, 1.5 million trucks, 3 million containers and 3,100 trains. The CTO is certified in ISO 28000 security management and ISO 14001 environmental management systems. They state that they are the only stevedore to have certifications in both security, safety and environmental management systems.

DP World Terminal

In 2014, DP World finished a $250 million automation upgrade. This allowed it to operate semi-automated operations at the terminal through the investment of 14 automated stacking cranes.

“Automation is definitely here to stay,” DP World Australia CEO Paul Scurrah told the Australian Financial Review. It’s “something that both us and our competitors are moving towards, so in one way shape or form, it is inevitable”.

AAT (Australian Amalgamated Terminals)

Australian Amalgamated Terminals (AAT) is a multi-user terminal facility, handling a wide range of cargo from containers and general cargo to motor vehicles.

AAT is indeed the country’s largest motor vehicle and Roll-On/Roll-Off (RoRo) terminal operator, with its facilities at Port Kembla and Fisherman islands handling over 600,000 vehicles and 25,000 units of RoRo every year.  The terminals are vital in supplying Australian shippers with services in vehicle and non-containerised stevedoring, as well as vehicle inspection.

AAT has secured an arrangement with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment to handle quarantine risks and provide wash services, packing and unpacking services as well as contamination treatment.  They operate at the Port of Brisbane (Fisherman Islands Cargo Terminal), Port Kembla and Melbourne (Appleton Dock).

Australian Amalgamated Terminals

How freight forwarders interact with ports

Freight forwarders interact closely with ports on behalf of importers and exporters to facilitate the smooth movement of their clients’ consignments. This is so their clients’ supply chain is uninterrupted, delays are minimised to the lowest possible extent and costs are kept down.

They achieve this by communicating closely with the transport companies instructed to travel to these ports.

Your freight forwarder would partner up typically with a transport company and book timeslots through a Vehicle Booking System, which is made available by container operators to collect your cargo.

Slots are generally made available when the container is discharged, and transport companies book into those lots. Once your cargo has been collected, the empty containers then need to be returned to empty parks at the ports for collection.

3 things to watch out for when interacting with ports

If your business is arranging a consignment at any of the ports mentioned above, it’s important for you to watch out for a few things that could significantly impact your shipment.

Having these 3 things in the back of your mind will go a long way to making sure your company is prepared.

1. Availability of cargo

Many shippers wonder how long it takes to pick up a container from the port. The answer is that when vessels arrive at the port, containers are not immediately available.

Shipments won’t always be ready to be picked up on the same day that your ship arrives at the designated port.

While frustrating, there are several reasons why this is the case.

  • An FCL (Full Container Load) shipment will only be ready to be picked up after the container is unpacked and stacked in the port’s container yard (CY).

When they are ready to be picked up from the CGS or the CY, keep in mind that they’ll need to be collected before the so-called “Last Free Day” to avoid being charged demurrage.

2. Strikes and Union Action

When stevedores and port staff go on strike (engage in “industrial action”), it can severely disrupt port operations and cause significant delays in your supply chain.

Last year, Port Botany was hit with waves of industrial action organised by the maritime division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU). Specifically, it had been reported that overtime and work bans at both Hutchison Ports and Patrick Terminals resulted in a cargo backlog of up to 11 days.

This, coupled with the stretched container capacity experienced by vessel operators throughout the pandemic, created one of the most challenging port experiences we’ve ever seen. You will always need to factor in unexpected interruptions such as strike action when planning out your shipping timeline.

Port strike in Melbourne

3. Weighbridges and compliance

Many ports have operational weighbridges to ensure compliance with Chain of Responsibility legislation.

For example, a public weighbridge was recently installed at the Port of Brisbane to allow trucks to be weighed and receive its weight ticket at any time during the day. It costs $36 per weigh and is located adjacent to the Brisbane Multimodal Terminal. 

You will need to ensure that your container is not overloaded. A truck that breaches weighbridge regulations can trigger the responsibility of all parties in the supply chain, including a freight forwarder and an importer.

You can check the road transport weight limits in each Australian state here.

 truck on weighbridge

Ports and terminals: essential to Australian trade

As you’ve seen above, ports and terminals play a vital role in our national economy and facilitate the overwhelming majority of its trade.

Containerised trade is on the rise. Over the past decade or so, containerised trade has grown on average by 2.4%.

Across Melbourne, Fremantle, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide, throughput increased significantly from 6.2 million TEU in 2011 to 7.5 million TEU in 2017 (which is about a 21.7% increase).

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) predicted that container trade across the country will increase even further – by between 172% and 205% across three container ports to 2032-2033.

At ICE, we are proud to play a key role in facilitating the movement of goods across all major Australian ports.

International Cargo Express sales representative

We’ve established long-term relationships with the vital container terminal operators across the country and are well-acquainted with all the key players in the industry.

When it comes to forwarding freight for our clients, our knowledge and skillset is unmatched.

With second-to-none client service and a deep understanding of Australian port operations, we work around the clock to ensure your consignment flows throughout the country’s complicated infrastructure seamlessly.  

Speak to one our expert shipping team members today to learn how we can help you or leave a comment below.

Request a Free Quote or call us on 1300 227 461

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