CSX and North Carolina Ports have commenced the Queen City Express, providing daily rail service between the Port of Wilmington and inland intermodal facilities in Charlotte.
CSX and North Carolina Ports have commenced the Queen City Express, providing daily rail service between the Port of Wilmington and inland intermodal facilities in Charlotte.

With its recently widened turning basin, congestion-free cargo-moving productivity, new on-terminal cold storage and wood pellet facilities and a just-inaugurated intermodal rail link, the North Carolina State Ports Authority’s Port of Wilmington is drawing a lot of attention, including from global carrier alliances.
Over the past few months, the port has added weekly calls from:

  • THE Alliance’s trans-Panama Canal EC2 service from North Asia, carrying boxes of NYK Group, “K” Line and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (soon to jointly operate as the Ocean Network Express, or ONE), as well as Yang Ming and Hapag-Lloyd (the latter now merged with United Arab Shipping Co.);
  • ZIM Integrated Shipping Services’ Z7S trans-Suez Canal string from South China, Southeast Asia and India, furnishing an export conduit for Carolinas pork and poultry producers and other farmers;
  • TA2/NEUATL2 service from Europe of the 2M Alliance of Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co., with calls at such ports as Germany’s Bremerhaven and England’s Felixstowe, augmenting that group’s TP10/Amberjack Asia offering in serving Wilmington; and
  • Blue Stream refrigerated container service of Seatrade unit StreamLines, touching 10 ports in Europe, the Caribbean and Central America, in particular providing opportunities for sweet potato exports to Europe and imports of various grocery store produce.

Indeed, keeping up with all the new offerings of the Port of Wilmington is nearly as challenging as staying abreast of the cavalcade of global container carrier coalitions.

And an aggressive expansion program portends to keep even more big ships coming to Wilmington docks.

“Businesses desire access to the global markets where their products are sold and their resources are found,” said Paul J. Cozza, the former Maersk Line senior vice president who came aboard in April 2014 as North Carolina Ports’ executive director.

“The Port of Wilmington provides the Carolinas that access, making North Carolina Ports a key factor in the region’s economic growth,” Cozza added. “The access our port provides continues to improve with recent services being activated.”

Cozza noted, for example, that the new ZIM service supports legacy apparel, furniture and hardware industries throughout the Carolinas.

North Carolina Ports’ Port of Wilmington gets its first call from THE Alliance’s EC2 container service with the May arrival of Yang Ming’s Helsinki Bridge.
North Carolina Ports’ Port of Wilmington gets its first call from THE Alliance’s EC2 container service with the May arrival of Yang Ming’s Helsinki Bridge.

In addition to the four new services and the 2M Alliance’s TP10/Amberjack service previously in place, Port of Wilmington’s container services include a pair of weekly SeaLand offerings connecting with ports of Mexico and Central America and Independent Container Line’s weekly trans-Atlantic link with Liverpool, England, and Antwerp, Belgium. Tom Adams, chairman of the North Carolina Ports board of directors, put it this way: “We are truly the port of competitive advantage. The capital investments being made in our infrastructure continue to drive the decisions of these container carriers, and we are expecting even more good news in the near future.”

Following up on the $30 million widening of the 42-foot-deep Cape Fear River turning basin to 1,400 feet from 1,200 feet, facilitating accommodation of boxships with capacity of as many as 10,000 twenty-foot-equivalent container units, the port is making $150 million in additional capital investments.

Headlining the undertakings are extension of the current single container berth to contiguous berthing able to simultaneously handle two post-Panamax ship berths, as well as addition of more post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes and a container yard expansion.

Two new big cranes are slated to arrive next spring, at a total cost of $27.4 million, while North Carolina Ports has an option to purchase two more such units from Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. Ltd., or ZPMC. With exercise of options, the Port of Wilmington would wind up with 10 container cranes operating over a 2,650-foot-long berth complex.

“This investment ensures that our best-in-class efficiencies will continue well into the future,” Cozza said. “Our high vessel and terminal productivity will be enhanced with this addition, thus keeping vessels on schedule and reducing inventory and logistics costs.”

Supported by a leading-edge terminal operating system, the 284-acre Port of Wilmington boasts one of the highest crane productivity rates on the U.S. East Coast, with more than 45 moves per hour at each of its post-Panamax cranes, according to Cliff Pyron, North Carolina Ports’ senior manager of external affairs. On the ground, truck turn times are approximately 18 minutes from pedestal to pedestal for a drop-off and an average of 30 minutes for drop-off and pickup.

Getting Wilmington cargo swiftly and efficiently to and from inland points is getting a boost as well.

In July, North Carolina Ports and CSX began operation of the Queen City Express, offering daily rail service for double-stacked containers between the Port of Wilmington and inland intermodal facilities in Charlotte. When plans for the Queen City Express were announced a year earlier, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and CSX leadership noted that it represents Wilmington’s first intermodal rail service in three decades.

In addition, CSX officials plan future Port of Wilmington rail access to the Class I’s CSX Carolina Connector, a state-of-the-industry regional intermodal hub targeted to become operational by the end of 2019 in Edgecombe County, just outside Rocky Mount, North Carolina, about 140 miles north of Wilmington.

North Carolina Ports officials also point to the Port of Wilmington’s ready highway access to major North Carolina metropolitan areas, such as Charlotte, Greenboro and Raleigh-Durham, and observe that more than 70 percent of the U.S. industrial base is within 700 miles of the port.

“North Carolina’s ports have ample capacity to support cargo volumes today and into the future,” Adams, the ports board chair, said. “With an ideal location, significant investment, modern facilities and our lack of congestion, we stand ready to help our customers succeed.”

Customers particularly counting on the Port of Wilmington these days include those in temperature-controlled commodity and wood pellet sectors. On-port facilities serving these respective sectors opened in late 2016 under separate public-private partnerships.

Port of Wilmington Cold Storage’s $17.5 million, 101,000 square-foot refrigerated warehouse maintains appropriate temperatures for such perishable goods as fruits, vegetable and proteins, including frozen pork and poultry products from the Carolinas, plus pharmaceuticals, flowers and furs.

“Agriculture is an $84 billion industry for North Carolina and the No. 1 industry in the state,” said Chuck McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of Port of Wilmington Cold Storage, or PWCS for short. “And the demand for U.S. meats and vegetables abroad is very high, particularly in Asia.

“We anticipate that PWCS is going to allow North Carolina producers and processors to significantly grow their export business by providing them with a more cost-effective alternative to trucking their products to out-of-state ports,” McCarthy continued. “And we also hope that local growers who may have thought export was out of their reach will consider working with us to help them grow their market overseas.”

A significant advantage offered by the PWCS on-port location is the ability to pack more product at less cost. A shipping container loaded at the port can hold more than 60,000 pounds of product, whereas a container loaded inland can only hold a maximum of about 57,000 pounds, due to restrictive over-the-road truck regulations.

Meanwhile, Enviva Partners LP’s dual-domed wood pellet terminal at the Port of Wilmington loaded its first export shipment in late 2016 as well, with pellets heading to Europe for use in power generation.

Each dome is designed to hold as many as 45,000 metric tons of wood pellets, which arrive via rail and truck, and annual shipments are expected to add up more than 1 million tons a year. Enviva’s main production facility is in Sampson County, 75 miles north of the port.

“The Port of Wilmington is a key nexus for global commerce and an economic engine for the state of North Carolina,” said John Keppler, Enviva’s chief executive officer. “We are excited to be an important part of the port’s ever-increasing volume of trade.”

North Carolina Ports’ role as an economic engine for the Tar Heel State is undeniable. The Wilmington port, the bulk- and breakbulk-oriented Port of Morehead City (about 100 miles to the northeast of Wilmington, with 45-foot channel depth and served by Norfolk Southern) and inland facilities in Charlotte and Greensboro combine to annually contribute $14 billion to North Carolina’s economy while supporting more than 76,000 jobs and contributing $707 million a year to state and local tax revenues.

“While the North Carolina ports are physically located in Wilmington and Morehead City,” North Carolina Ports’ Pyron said, “the economic benefits of the vibrant, growing ports reach from the coastal plains to the Blue Ridge Parkway.”