Cuba's Mariel port builds for bigger ships amid headwinds
Joseph Bonney, Senior Editor | Apr 07, 2017 7:38 AM EDT
NEW ORLEANS — Cuba's fledgling Port of Mariel is feeling the effects of
the country's weak economy but is preparing to handle more trade and
larger ships if restrictions on US trade are lifted, said the chief of
the port's operating company.
"We think that Mariel has a wonderful opportunity, a wonderful location
to be the first port of call for Asian and Latin American routes going
into the the US," said Charles Baker, director general of the PSA
International-owned company that operates the port.
However, turning Mariel into a major transshipment or transit port would
require changes in US restrictions that prohibit ships without special
licenses from calling at a US port within 180 days after visiting a
"We would really, really like to have our Achilles' heel removed by
Washington," Baker said at the Port of New Orleans' Cargo Connections
Conference. Mariel handles a modest amount of US trade by ocean carriers
with special licenses to carry foodstuffs and other cargo between the US
Mariel's container volume grew more than 100 percent from about 160,000
twenty-foot-equivalent units in 2014 to 330,713 TEUs in 2015 before
slipping 1.6 percent to 325,319 TEUs last year. The volume of laden
containers is almost entirely imports. Baker said 90 percent of the
export containers leave port empty.
The port's first year of operation was in 2014, after the Cuban
government shifted container traffic from Havana, which has severe
vessel draft limitations, to Mariel, where the harbor can be deepened
and that there's room to expand.
Mariel's harbor is being deepened to handle New Panamax ships, and there
are extend the port's 2,317 feet of quay, nearly quadruple the
terminal's footprint to 232 acres, and add to the port's current four
ship-to-shore cranes and 12 rubber-tired gantry cranes.
The port has technology and equipment including optical character
recognition cameras at truck gates and rubber-tire gantry cranes in the
terminal's container yard.
Although Mariel can handle Panamax vessels, the largest vessel it has
handled so far has capacity of only about 2,500 TEUs, Baker said. The
port has an intermodal rail yard with four 650-meter tracks but handles
only one train a day.
Intermodal rail operations have been hampered by a shortage of rolling
stock and by poor conditions on Cuba's rail system. "It does no good to
turn the train around in six hours if it takes six days when it gets to
the destination," Baker said.
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