Bangalore: Chennai port, India’s second busiest container port, has been hit by roadside congestion in recent months because of inadequate access facilities, which has left container trucks queuing up for several kilometres both inside and outside the port.

Infrastructure woes: Container trucks at the Chennai port.

The snags in infrastructure to bring and evacuate cargo to and from the port have led container carriers to start calling at new container-handling facilities nearby at Karaikal in Puducherry and Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

The customs department has given permission to Karaikal port to handle container cargo. “This would enable the export-import trade in Chennai to start using Karaikal and clear their inbound/outbound containers without delays," said Atul Raja, head of corporate communications at Marg Ltd, the promoter of Karaikal port.

“Container carriers are also seriously considering switching to Kattupalli port just a few kilometres away from Chennai," said S.C. Lim, an executive at Chennai Feeder Operators Association, a shipping lobby group.

Kattupalli port, being developed by Larsen and Toubro Ltd, will open its container loading facilities in January.

Container Corp. of India Ltd, or Concor, the state-run rail hauler of containers, has started regular train services linking Karaikal and Krishnapatnam ports to its network.

Atulya Misra, chairman, Chennai port, was not immediately available for comment. His office said he was travelling.

“The export-import trade is so frustrated by the problems in Chennai port that they are looking at alternative ports where rail is the easiest and cheapest mode for evacuation of containers," said P. Nanda Kumar, general manager (commercial and operations) at Concor’s southern regional office based in Chennai.

Chennai port has been plagued by poor road connectivity and inadequate road conditions, with many sections in disrepair and awaiting a much-needed widening.

Port access is also a major problem with only one gate out of 10 being permanently open for moving containers.

“This was bound to happen," said Suresh Amirapu, managing director of Chennai-based port consultancy firm Portman India Pvt. Ltd. “Critical infrastructure has not caught up with the growth in cargo volumes at Chennai port," he said. “The number of access gates has not increased. And the roads are the same from the time Chennai was handling three lakh containers. Now, the port handles some 1.5 million standard containers a year." Chennai has two container terminals that are run separately by DP World Pvt. Ltd and PSA International Pte Ltd. These two terminals handled 672,000 standard containers between April and August, up from 631,000 a year earlier. In the year to March, the two terminals loaded 1.52 million standard containers.

Container volume at Chennai has been growing at 8-12% a year, but the back-up infrastructure is not able to cater to the growing volumes, Lim said. “The weakest link in the supply chain has been the exit gate and the approach road to the port. In a fragile system like this, how can the shipping lines operate from Chennai port confidently," he asked.

Since mid-August, ship stays at Chennai have been averaging 5 days against the norm of 36 hours. Even when a ship arrives back on schedule there is no guarantee of a berthing window and the vessel may again be delayed.

At the same time the terminals have been imposing “carting" and “export volume" restrictions, which have artificially capped loadings and, therefore, freight earnings for ship owners.

The port authority closed all container movements for four days till 17 October and scaled back vessel handling for two days, the latest in a series of such actions to deal with the congestion.

To recover the losses arising from port congestion, berthing delays and longer port stays, container carriers have been imposing a trade recovery surcharge of $75-150 since August depending on the size of a container for shipments to and from Chennai.

Meanwhile, the five-member feeder operators association servicing Chennai port has sought suitable gate access enhancement and lifting of trade volume restrictions to overcome the bottlenecks. “These are simple things which are expected at any normal functioning port and which can be done easily to alleviate congestion," Lim said.