The Port of Hamburg recorded total cargo handling of 119.9 million tons for the past year, 6.8 percent less than in 2021. Container handling fell by 4.6 percent to 8.3 million container units. In terms of total throughput, Hamburg is thus at a level between the annual results of 2004 and 2005. Container throughput roughly corresponds to that of 2005, at that time it was 8.1 million TEU.
Axel Mattern, CEO of Port of Hamburg Marketing (HHM), said on Monday that the market shares in container handling in the North Sea region remained largely unchanged, since Hamburg's direct competitor ports in this market segment will also have to accept significant declines in 2022. In Antwerp it was a minus of 5.2 percent, for Rotterdam a decline of 3.1 percent is expected.
The problem becomes clearer in the long-term view of the container traffic that has so far dominated Hamburg. While Germany's largest seaport is stagnating at the level it was 18 years ago, Antwerp increased its container throughput between 2005 and 2022 from 6.5 million to 13.5 million TEU. In Rotterdam, the number of containers handled rose from 9.3 to 15.3 million TEU from 2005 to 2021.
Mattern gave a number of reasons for the sharp decline in port handling: “The war in Ukraine with the associated sanctions against Russia and the global problems in the supply chains due to the corona pandemic had an impact on handling at the Port of Hamburg over the course of the year ", he said. "In addition, there were labor disputes in the port at the beginning of the second half of the year and very high inflation in the course of the autumn, which caused consumer spending to drop to a low point."
Götz Wiese, economic and port policy spokesman for the CDU parliamentary group, does not think this is plausible: "It is too easy to blame the drop in freight on the war and world politics alone. Many problems are homemade,” he says. “With a strong port development plan, deficits in the port could be addressed and the trend reversed. But the Senate lacks a common concept for the port.”
One thing is clear: Major infrastructure projects in and around the Port of Hamburg only make progress with great difficulty. The deepening of the Elbe, which was officially completed at the beginning of 2022 after more than 20 years of implementation, did not bring the target depths hoped for by shipping and port management on the lower Elbe fairway over the past year. More depth on the fairway means more cargo, especially on the container ships. The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration, headquartered in Bonn, blamed settling effects in the fairway after the dredging work and weather phenomena.
In Hamburg itself it is unclear how the long-planned new Köhlbrand crossing and its connection within the port will progress. According to – unconfirmed – media reports, the costs for this could increase from the previously planned 3.2 billion euros to up to five billion euros. At the moment nobody knows what financial share the federal government will take on to replace the decrepit Köhlbrand bridge with a Köhlbrand tunnel in this decade. The Köhlbrandbrücke is too low for today's largest container freighters - they can therefore not call at Hamburg's most modern container terminal Altenwerder.
The environmental associations Nabu and BUND are currently intensifying their campaign to prevent the construction of the A26 East on the southern edge of the port, which has been debated and planned for decades. The associations are calling for a logistical and financial focus on a new Köhlbrand crossing and the abandonment of the A26 East. They are also gaining momentum from the coalition dispute in the federal government's traffic light coalition. The Greens only want to build new rail routes if possible, but the FDP does not want to do without the construction of new motorways. When looking for a compromise, the federal government could come up with the idea of deleting the A26 East from the list of priorities. The Hamburg Greens are now again questioning the sense of the Autobahn, which they decided to build in the coalition agreement with the SPD.
In this mixed situation, HHM board member Mattern showed nerves when presenting the annual figures. Unusually clearly, he attacked the federal government with the demand to ensure sea access to the port of Hamburg in particular: "The reform of the waterway and shipping administration is a disaster. The worst thing is that there is no coordination center for the diverse tasks on the federal waterways and the sea areas, not even with regard to the federal states," he said about the concentration of official functions in Bonn over the past few years. The reform of the authority initiated by former Federal Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer (CSU) in the past decade has “completely failed”.
When in doubt, the individual employees of the federal waterways and shipping administration did “excellent work”, said Mattern, but there were far too few. “For example, there is no mobile phone coverage in the German Bight. But this is urgently needed, not only on the ships, but above all for the coordination between the pilots," said Mattern. "It's absurd, it's not about money, it's about responsibilities. We can only keep asking the federal government to take responsibility for the entire system.”