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Monday, May 27, 2002

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Equipment failure: Kochi port users all at sea

Sajeev Kumar V.

Frequent breakdown of gantry cranes and other equipment at the Kochi port has become a matter of concern for container operations.

FREQUENT disruptions of gantry cranes and other equipment at the Kochi port causing detention of vessels in berths has become a matter of concern for the shipping community, especially the container operators. Detention of vessels is helping the port authorities earn additional revenue by way of hire and gang charges, but vessel operators are in a fix as they are finding it difficult to meet their committed connections at the hub ports. The overstay of a vessel helps the port authorities earn Rs 30,000 ($ 625) a day by way of berth hire and Rs 15,000 from each labour gang booked.

The frequent breakdown of gantry cranes raised doubts about the container terminal really functioning properly; hardly a good augury for a port desperately trying to attract more vessels. With the onset of the monsoon, the port sources fear, the equipment failure will become more frequent, perhaps forcing more vessels skip Kochi to keep their targeted schedules.

Port users, it is said, have been incurring heavy additional costs and experiencing logistical nightmares due to the frequent breakdown of the handling equipment at the port. The steamer agents and the trade bodies, according to sources, have for the last 2-3 years been pleading with the port authorities for urgent steps to procure more equipment. However, to date no action has been initiated towards this end. The situation has become critical with serious implications for the future of container vessel handling and volumes at the port.

The Cochin Port Deputy Chairman, Mr A Janardhana Rao, admitted that the gantry crane II at the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal (RGCT) had had breakdowns. But he declined to call these problems as `regular features'. These were, according to him, isolated events.

Last year, as he pointed out, the port could guarantee 86 per cent availability of quay cranes against the government norm of 85-90 per cent. Only 8 per cent of the total hours the vessels under operations was lost due to breakdown or preventive maintenance. Of the 412 vessels that berthed at the RGCT last year, only 14 were really affected by the delay caused by breakdowns, he said.

"It is a universal fact that breakdowns may occur sporadically, if the equipment are used continuously. If any quay gantry crane or any other equipment had any problem, our stand-by maintenance team effectively rushed to the place and attended to the problems to ensure that the equipment is put back into operation as fast as possible," Mr Rao said.

However, in order to handle the increasing container traffic at the RGCT, the port proposed to purchase a third gantry crane shortly. Tender inquiries were sent to the manufacturers of quay gantry cranes as per the shortlist prepared by the Indian Ports Association. Also, in order to revamp the existing gantries for absolute minimum breakdown, the port had taken steps such as replacement of PLC (programmable logic control), control system and rectifying misalignment, he said.

Mr Rao denied receiving any negative feedback from vessel operators with regard to the performance of the container terminal. Maersk Sealand, one of the leading operators from Kochi, had expressed their happiness for high productivity of the container terminal. Apart from this, two other container lines HRC Indisri Lines and Delmas, which recently commenced its operations from the port, have appreciated the efforts made by the port to increase the productivity.

But then the users of the port including the shipping community have a different story to tell. They complain of frequent breakdowns of various port equipment entailing huge financial loss. The breakdown of the gantry cranes has become almost a regular feature. They also cite as example the incident of a container vessel, m.v. Earnest Rickmeres, which sailed out of the port a few days ago leaving behind 50 TEUs of export containers due to the problems at the gantry.

The vessel arrived on May 18 evening for discharging 220 boxes and loading 150 boxes. It stayed at the berth for seven shifts (covering two-and-a-half days) — 60 hours for 370 moves. In the neighbouring ports, a container vessel would take only 12 hours for loading and unloading of boxes. If this kind of situation persists, it would result in the diversion of cargo from Kochi to neighbouring ports no matter howsoever the serious the efforts to attract traffic to the port.

Sources point out that this particular vessel is part of a consortium of four operators known as Galax Service having weekly call at Kochi en route to Tuticorin, Port Klang and Singapore. The consortium is planning to withdraw from Kochi from July 1, as it wants a time-bound schedule and window clearance at Kochi as in the case of other ports, sources observe.

Though the port officials claim that they provide special relaxations for all export cargo, the ground realities are often different, because of the poor state of the equipment and the consequent drop in productivity. This is important because users of the Tuticorin port are much better placed. What, therefore, is needed is a more serious effort to maintain the equipment and achieve a higher productivity at the container terminal. The shipping community feels that the gantry maintenance should be handed over to private parties on a trial basis. They also suggest constitution of a high level committee comprising port officials, steamer agents, Customs House Agents and Customs officials to prepare a report on how to improve the efficiency of RGCT. Unless the port takes serious initiatives in this regard, the neighbouring ports offering better services will gain, perhaps at the expense of Kochi port.

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