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Baltimore bridge collapse reveals ticking time bomb

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The ship that destroyed the Baltimore Bridge was big. Really big. But it’s far from being the biggest. And this becomes a titanic problem.

These are economies of scale.

About 80 percent of all global trade is carried by ocean-going ships.

For Australia, this figure is 99.93 percent.

“The shipping industry continues to make things more efficient, and therefore more profitable and more attractive,” says Elisabeth Braw, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “It is thanks to shipping that it has become so logical to build a globalized economy: it is so cheap to ship goods globally that people in rich countries can have them manufactured elsewhere, transported across a few oceans, while paying less than if they were. home made. »

But the deaths of six people and the destruction of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge The loss of power to the container ship MV Dali this week has drawn attention to a growing problem.

Ship size.

“There is pressure for efficiency and scale in the shipping industry, but this should not give rise to unacceptable levels of risk,” said Allianz senior maritime risk consultant Andrew Kinsey. Commercial, in a recent risk assessment.

“Welcome technical advances have been made in shipping, but we do not yet see a safer environment to match. »

The equation is tempting.

A bigger ship doesn’t need much more crew than a larger ship. And a doubling in size only increases the fuel bill by about 25 percent.

That’s why it’s about 80 percent cheaper to transport 24,000 shipping containers on a single monstrous ship today than the 250 it took to do the same thing in the 1960s.

But one downside is becoming increasingly evident: 10,000 shipping containers means a lot of eggs in one basket. And the most recent ships carry 24,000 “eggs”.

This means that each basket becomes incredibly heavy, reaching 225,000 tonnes.

And – as with the SS Titanic disaster in 1912 – there is little it can do to avoid an unexpected obstacle, like a 250,000-ton cruise ship carrying 5,600 passengers.

Titans of Commerce

“Since 2006, the average size of a container ship has doubled to 4,580 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit – or standard shipping container), and ships with a capacity of more than 12,000 TEU accounted for 51 % of fleet capacity expansion. “, says Niels Rasmussen, chief maritime transport analyst of the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO).

“Today, just 626 ships provide 36 percent of fleet capacity, and the trend is set to continue as larger ships dominate the order book.”

Container ships passing through the Panama and Suez Canals are limited by the depth of the canals. Currently, ships cannot weigh more than 44 feet (13.4 m) due to drought in Central America. Usually it is 50 feet (15.2 m).

This limits the physical dimensions of any vessel wishing to pass. This in turn limits the number of shipping containers on each “Neo Panamax” class vessel to around 17,000.

For offshore, the only limitation is the size of the port receiving the vessel.

They were nicknamed the “Post Panamax” models.

“We estimate that by the end of 2025, the average container ship will be above 5,000 TEU, and the two segments (Neo Panamax and Post Panamax) will contribute more than 40% of the fleet capacity,” said Rasmussen.

And the search for efficiencies of scale continues.

Last year, the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) announced plans to build a 24,000 TEU nuclear-powered “Post Panamax” container ship.

“The very large nuclear container ship is designed to achieve truly ‘zero emissions’ during the ship’s operating cycle,” the CSSC said in a statement posted on Chinese social media.

Such a power source would also allow the ship to move much faster than the usual 22 knots (41 km/h).

That means a lot more momentum. And that brings additional risk. Particularly in the South China Sea and Singapore’s Strait of Malacca, the most congested – and accident-prone – regions for shipping in the world.

Heavy transporters

This week’s accidentwhich occurred when the container ship Dali lost power and headed straight for a support pillar, was a reminder of the neglected scale of the shipping industry – and how many systems fail are not prepared to deal with it,” says Braw.

Dispatch audio captures terrifying moment of Baltimore bridge collapse

The total number of maritime accidents is constantly decreasing. But the average accident is becoming more and more serious.

This is the conviction of marine insurers around the world.

THE Allianz Trade and Shipping Security Review found that almost 2,000 incidents of ships colliding with port infrastructure (port walls, quays, cranes) have been reported over the past decade. These were mainly piers and harbor walls. About 200 of them involved container ships.

And the electrical failure on board the MV Dali is nothing extraordinary.

The Allianz report said machinery breakdowns were the cause of almost half of maritime accidents worldwide between 2013 and 2022.

What is new is the increasing size and weight of ships facing such failures. And the impact of these ships on infrastructure often originally designed to support less than a quarter of their weight.

Baltimore’s François Scott Key Bridge opened in 1977.

This was a time when the newest and largest “Panamax” container ships carried around 3,300 standardized steel crates. They weighed approximately 53,000 tons.

The Baltimore Bridge was not built to withstand a collision with one of these. Or any other ship, for that matter.

However, after a collision that collapsed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, Florida in 1980, new bridges were typically built with pylons, sand, and rubble “dolphins” (barriers) around reinforced foundations. and deeper.

This idea was not conceived with the 95,000-ton, 300m-long MV Dali in mind – almost as big as a US Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

And the newest and largest container ships that will enter service in 2024 are 400m long, 61m wide and can carry some 24,000 shipping containers.

They can weigh more than 225,000 tonnes.

Worst scenario

“Insurers like AGCS have been warning for years that the increasing size of ships leads to a higher accumulation of risks,” explains Captain Khanna of Allianz. “These fears are now coming to fruition, as demonstrated by the growing number and cost of incidents. »

Collisions on bridges were rarely on the radars of international marine insurers until this week.

The main fear was the fire, which caused the loss of 64 ships in the five years to 2022.

“Dangerous and combustible goods are increasingly transported in containers, while the prevalence of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries poses a growing risk to both container shipping and car-carrying vessels,” says the Allianz report. “At the same time, these dangerous cargoes are increasingly transported by large ships, where the consequences of fires are magnified, leading to more serious losses and longer delays. »

Such a fire can quickly spread well beyond the handling capacity of a crew of 20 to 30 people, he adds.

And that’s why most of the world’s shipping companies quickly turned away from the Red Sea amid drone and missile attacks from Houthi rebels.

“The cost of casualties or incidents is increasing, with increased severity, and this is due to the increasing size of vessels,” explains Khanna. “Such ships generate economies of scale for shipowners, but also increased risk and a disproportionately higher cost if something goes wrong. »

The Allianz report details its “worst case scenario”, a collision between a container ship and a cruise liner.

These are a 225,000 ton “Post Panamax” container ship and a modern 250,000 ton cruise liner carrying some 5,600 passengers.

Few ports can receive them. Even fewer people can provide the emergency services needed to support them.

“Bigger ships mean bigger losses,” says Khanna. “An incident involving a (average) daily container ship or car transporter… can now cost up to $1 billion, once salvage and environmental considerations are taken into account. A major incident involving two mega container/passenger ships in an environmentally sensitive region could cost more than $4 billion.

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