Turning my gaze back to the outside of one Discovery, I wondered why the end caps from the door handles were missing. A contretemps with a stevedore, perhaps?
“No,” says Andy Bates, the operations manager. “They have been removed, along with other vulnerable items, and put in the car for safe-keeping.”
What about the sticker on some cars showing a suspension coil?
“That’s to remind the technicians at the other end that the suspension is tied down for the crossing,” he says.
All of the JLR cars are limited to 2000rpm, too, “so the drivers can’t rev the nuts off the engine”. If you’re a frequent flyer on the M5 where it crosses the River Avon near Bristol, you’ll be familiar with Royal Portbury Dock. It’s on the left bank of the river as you head south, with Avonmouth and Royal Edward docks on the right. All three are owned by the Bristol Port Company (BPC), which bought them from Bristol City Council in 1991.
Together they cover 2600 acres, but it’s the 450 acres set aside for car parking at Royal Portbury (there’s another 100 acres at Avonmouth and Royal Edward) that interests me. Those endless lines of car roofs, glinting in the sun, although more often dulled by grey clouds, are a sight to behold. Look at the area nearest the bridge as you cross it going south and, assuming the few compounds you can see are full, you’re looking at around 16,000 cars.
The whole place can accommodate 92,000: 77,000 at Portbury and 15,000 at Avonmouth and Royal Edward. Such is demand, the company has just purchased the 30-acre farm immediately below the bridge and is planning to turn its fields into more compounds capable of storing 6000 additional cars.
On average, two car carriers arrive at Portbury dock every day, taking advantage of the world’s secondhighest tidal ranges twice every 24 hours. There are five berths at Portbury and the depth is 17.8m. If the ramps leading into the ships are too steep, therefore risking the brand new cars grounding and getting damaged as they enter and exit, sea water can be pumped out of the dock in order to lower the ship and reduce the ramp angle.
Each vessel carries around 4500 cars, of which typically 1200 are brought ashore and around 1000 loaded for export. Helping to make it all possible are 620 BPC employees – a few white collar, the others marine technicians, pilots, lock keepers, crane drivers, dredger workers and, crucially, stevedores.
Around 30 full-time stevedores (or drivers) load and unload each ship, their ranks swelled by contract workers as necessary. There are 65 the day I visit, working two of the three car ships lashed to the dockside.
Cars arrive from all over the world: Toyota Hiluxes from South Africa and C-HRs from Turkey, Hondas from Mexico, MGs from China, Ssangyongs from Korea, Fiats from Italy, Jeeps from the US…
Most deep-sea exports (the equivalent of airlines’ long-haul) used to be handled by big ports such as Southampton, but Bristol is getting a larger share of the business, partly because of the congestion at traditional ports caused by the UK’s record new car imports and exports. Bristol is often their first European stop. The journey from the Far East takes three weeks but from Mexico and the US, just six days.
Once the cars are landed (only 5% of the imported vehicles are vans and other light commercials), they’re driven to their respective compounds, rented from BPC by the car companies. Toyota alone occupies a 60-acre site. Here they’re given a pre-delivery inspection (PDI) prior to delivery by road, direct to the dealers.
“Our proximity to the M5 is one of our strengths,” says Tony Dent, BPC’s director of automotive trade. “We operate three train services a week, taking less than 1% of the cars.” It’s all go, go, go – but it wasn’t always so. Following the 2008 crash, annual movements sank to 360,000 cars each year. Manufacturers imported sold cars only, leaving many of BPC’s compounds empty.
“We considered warehousing,” says Dent. “Now, just a few years later, we’re handling 600,000 car movements annually and looking for more storage space. It’s all down to PCPs. While money is cheap and sales are strong, manufacturers are exporting everything they can lay their hands on, regardless of whether it’s sold or not. Our challenge is to make sure those cars leave our compounds so there’s enough space for the ones arriving behind them.”
Back at the quayside, Andy Bates is keeping a watchful eye on the drivers leaving the ship.
“Be safe and don’t take risks, we tell them,” he says. “The farthest compound is two and a half miles away, but the rule is, don’t rush.”
All certainly appears calm. They started at 10am and will finish, 1800 cars later, at 9pm. I don’t know how they do it without burning rubber.
“Planning,” says Bates. “I’m off now to organise tomorrow’s shifts. Whatever the day brings, one things is for sure: two tides will come in bringing at least two ships. That kind of pressure focuses the mind.”
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