Shall we look at Trinco port now?



Within a matter of three years a brand new port has come up in the south of Sri Lanka, closer to the main shipping route than the port of Colombo and simultaneously an expansion to existing port facilities in Colombo is taking shape under South Port project. There is another brand new port viz. Oluwil, to commence business in the first quarter 2011. This seems a remarkable achievement for the country of which ports mainly depend on the transhipment container volume for survival. Yet, will this development ensure an uninterrupted flow of cargo to Sri Lanka? This paper is an attempt to answer this question by looking at potentials a port such as Trincomalee can offer in the future to retain the transhipment business with Sri Lanka.

Transhipment Hub status of Colombo and changing shipping environment

The international shipping scene is in constant change in the unending quest for excellence as in any other industry. Among multiple changes that are taking place in the shipping environment, a few aspects as shown below, which are more relevant to Sri Lanka need consideration as a prelude to the topic under discussion.

Sri Lanka vs. Indian port development

Whilst Hambanthota port is taking water to be ready for the first vessel scheduled to arrive in November and Colombo South Port work is in progress (sans sealing the agreement for the construction of the terminal) and also Oluwil port is due to be opened in early part of 2011, a flurry of similar activities is taking place in neighbouring India. In Southern India, much-talked Vallapadam port will be commissioned by end of 2010 ( DP World Website) and a host of other new, as well as improved ports, will be ready to offer services to merchant ships soon. A few of these ports such as (1) Vizhimjam ( 23- 27 meters draft), ( (2) Ganagavaram ( 21 meters) and (3) Krishnapatnam ( 19 meters) are examples promising to offer deeper draft, which will be one of the decisive criteria in the near future, than any currently operational container ports in Sri Lanka. India has proposed in 2007 a 12.4 billion USD ports upgrade plan enabling India to keep pace with growth of traffic ( Projected cargo traffic growth in India by 2011-12 is 876.70 million mt. from 521.58 million mt in 2004-05. Of which container traffic volume is projected to be 12.50 million teus in the same year from 4.5 million teus in 2004-05 (National Maritime Dev. Proramme-2006).

The port expansion plan includes inter alia:

In view of the fact that 80% current transhipment volume of port of Colombo is associated with Indian ports, effect of the emerging Indian ports, as shown in the Picture 1, on Sri Lanka has to be taken in to careful consideration in the context of Sri Lanka trying to become the hub of the region.

New Ports in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar

In order to support the new ports to retain and handle local cargo and attract cargo from Colombo, the Indian government is even thinking of relaxing Cabotage regulations thus allowing foreign vessels to carry cargo from other coastal ports, for instance, to Vallarpadam to make it a transhipment container port. An Indian journal reports quoting a Govt. official saying that the Shipping ministry of India is believed to be finalizing details for the plan, and a cabinet note on the proposal will be prepared soon (The Hindu Business Line, 19th July 2010). The relaxation will allow foreign shipping lines to carry cargo between Vallarpadam and other Indian ports, despite opposition from domestic carriers as it would lead to the opening up of India’s coastal waters to foreign ships.

In addition to the above, the Indian Shipping Ministry Secretary D.T Joseph is quoted saying following with regard to Vallapadam ‘Shipping ministry is prepared to consider scaling down the vessel related charges to the level of those being levied by the Colombo Port on an experimental basis for six months if it will draw good response from the trade". (Financial Times of 22/03/2010).

Indian ports are only one agent of the threat the port of Colombo is facing. There are a few others taking shape in the neighbourhood.

The strategic advantage of SSCP to India is that this project envisages obtaining a navigable sea route connecting East and West coasts of the country, with a reduction in travel distance of more than 420 nautical miles (650 km) for larger ships. It is expected to bring economic benefits to Tamil Nadu, especially and particularly to Tuticorin port, which is to become a model port along with 13 other minor ports (Indian Ministry of shipping web site on port development, April 2010).

Five alternative routes considered for SathusamudaramAs shown by Picture 2, there were five alternative routes considered by many commissions. (There were nine committees, before India gaining independence and, five committees after the independence). Most of the commissions have suggested a land-based alignment across Rameswaram Island). Estimated cost of the project in 2004 was IRS 4,000 crores. With that much cost, the depth envisaged for this canal is for ships with weight of 30,000 DWT and less. Most of the new generation ships (with weight more than 60,000 DWT and tankers with weight above 150,000 DWT) cannot however make use of this canal.

Ever since the Sethusamudram projects got under way (dredging), various quarters expressed concern over the implications of the successful completion of this project. Out of all, religious concern has so far played the most critical role by delaying the project through court cases. Their concern is that this project in its currently accepted form viz Alternative 5, would destroy the bridge supposed to have been built by Lord Rama (Sathu Rama) and therefore it is an act of sacrilege. This belief occupies an important place in the Hindu mythology and therefore touches the minds of majority Hindus of India. Apart from that some experts have expressed concern over the practicality and the viability of this project stating that any gain by using this canal would be negligible.

Now the State of India is faced with a dilemma as for the course of action and future of SSCP. Total suspension of the project is most unlikely, despite many concerns, as such an action would be politically much damaging to the Congress party. Therefore, most likely scenario would be that the government would go ahead with the project. However, instead of Alternative five, which if implemented, would be destroying the Lord Rama’s Bridge, the State would cut the canal through Rameswaram Island; perhaps Alternative 4. If it happens, the Colombo port would be affected to the extent of the ships which can negotiate the canal. Tuticorin transhipment container volume, presently transhipped via Colombo, which is about 330,000 teus per annum, would be the first to be diverted to one of the newly constructed ports in the lower East coast of India, such as Chennai or Ennore from where these cargo would get connected to main line vessels, which perhaps by that time, would not be transiting via Malacca Straits but through Thai canal! Effect of Thai canal too, therefore is, important to be examined in the context of future of Colombo port.

Thai Canal, formally known as Kra Isthmus is a plan to construct a canal across southern ThailandThe Thai Canal, formally known as Kra Isthmus is a plan to construct a canal across southern Thailand, like that of Suez and Panama enabling ships to avoid going through Malacca Straits ( The location of the Thai Canal is as shown by Picture 3. Proposed Thai canal

As a way out, for the ships are compelled to sail around Malay Peninsula, the Kra canal was suggested as early as 1677 (Wikipedia). This idea resurfaced several times in 18th, 19th centuries but in 1897, Thailand and the British Empire agreed not to build it to protect the dominance of Singapore as a harbour in the region. But in the 20th century, in 1985 with a Japanese plan to use nuclear device to construct the canal, this idea re-emerged.

Length of proposed canal could be anywhere between 50-100 km and the depth would be 25 meters. With the problems in transiting Malacca Straits which is infested with pirates on one hand and the draft of 25 meters is limited to a narrow passage which is frequented by large bulk carriers and oil tankers, attention was re-focused on this project and therefore in 1993, an access highway was commenced. According to US Government, this project has now been undertaken by the Chinese to be completed in ten years with an estimated cost of 20-25 billion USD (Dr. Satapon, 2009).

Once the Thai Canal is in operation, it will bring some remarkable changes to East/West trunk sea route. The voyage time for cargo on either direction would be reduced considerably. It could tend to usher positive effects on Sri Lanka in terms of the Thai Canal will enable Sri Lanka to be more competitive as a transhipment hub: but especially those ports in the Eastern coast (Trincomalee and Oluwil) and to some extent, those in South coast placing them directly in line with the Thai Canal, bringing new importance to these ports and opening hitherto untapped opportunities.

Trend of ships getting bigger

Details of the Super Container Ships

For some time, there were divergent views as to the limits of the size for container ships that can float on the oceans, though they seemed feasible on the drawing boards. Any doubts on this were dispelled as vessels which can accommodate over 11,000 teu, such as the Emma Maersk (see Table 1) which is already in service and seven more of sister ships, (which, though designed carrying capacity is 13,500 teus, the owners; Maersk Line carry only up to 11,000 teus at 14 mt per teu basis) are entering into service ( 2010).

Now experts say that it has become increasingly clear that there are no insurmountable technical barriers to further increases in the size of container vessels which can accommodate 18,000 teus (ESCAPE report on Port Development 2007). In 2008, the South Korean shipbuilder STX Corporation announced plans to construct a container ship capable of carrying 22,000 teus! ( wiki/Container_ship).

Table 1 illustrates the comparison of the biggest container vessel at present time and that that are on the drawing board. Ships size is any way a function of the market demand for cargo.


Enhancing vessel size will have multiple effects on the port development:

Once the location advantage is lost resulting in a further drop of cargo volume, having already lost Tuticorin Cargo due to commissioning of Sethusamudram, Colombo port will not have much cargo to attract as for the operators of supper container vessels, maximum draft of 19 m planned for Colombo South Port would not be appealing and therefore it is natural that shipping lines operating those ships looking for an alternative to cater for Indian cargo volume. Should we allow them to choose Gangavaram with 21 draft or Vizhinjam with 23-27 m draft or any other planned new ports such as Hankasserry or Alappuzha or Munambam or Ponnani or Beypore or Azhikka etc ?. What about Trincomalee?


Situated on the North East coast of the Island, Trincomalee is Asia’s largest and finest natural harbour with unlimited draught (Ports of Sri Lanka - Hand Book 1989). The harbour is able to shelter over a hundred of the largest ships.

Trincomalee has a large harbour area of 2030 hectares; (as against 195 hectares in Colombo) (CASA Weekly, April, 2010) but it has no facility to handle container cargo. On an average basis, about 320, (SLPA unpublished data, 2009) ships call annually at Trincomalee; majority of these being Bulk vessels carrying wheat to the Prima flour milling factory and those vessels which used to carry provisions and armed forces and passengers to the North when the conflict was going on.

However, Trincomalee offers opportunities for growth in view of following factors:

However, Trincomalee has no common-port infrastructure. It is a still a harbour; but, as per SLPA it is among the ‘finest natural harbours of Asia’ (SLPA Ports of Sri Lanka). With regard to other components of modern infrastructure, nothing much is there yet. But the fact that existing highway link between Colombo and Trincomalee has been upgraded with four lanes with a carpeted surface and the existing railway also has been planned for use extensively for container- rail-transport could enhance the potentials of Trincomalee to be developed in to a major port. Added to these are, under Negenahira Navodaya (Reawakening the East), and under BOI, industrial zones been proposed with a separate zone for Indian investors. Proposed coal-power project, oil storages, cement barbing plants etc could change the outlook of this region. Website for President Mahinda Rajapaksa says, "The damaged social and economic infrastructure in the Eastern Province was rehabilitated, after removing all land mines, at a cost of over Rs.120 billion under the Negenahira Navodaya Programme. A number of large bridges in the East including Kinniya, Sri Lanka’s longest bridge, and Arugambay Bridge were opened to the public. They cost more than Rs. 7 billion. Under the Negenahira Navodaya programme, electricity had been given to 171,000 housing units under 665 electricity schemes at a cost of Rs. 1,534 million by 2008. In addition, 276,000 people benefited through the water supply schemes implemented in the Eastern province with an investment of Rs. 45 billion. At the end of 2008, 3007 km of roads in the Eastern province were constructed and rehabilitated at a cost of Rs. 30 billion."


If one may say that in Sri Lanka things do not move fast enough, he is not very far from the truth. Colombo South Port expansion was first proposed in 1997 by the Task Force on the development of shipping sector in their National Ports and Shipping Policy stating that "development of the South Port of Colombo in the area adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Quay". But it took 13 years to see any constructive steps taken towards construction of the port. Most of the knowledgeable persons would admit the delay has caused a considerable damage to the ports of Sri Lanka, shipping industry and to the economy of the country as macro level. A port cannot be built in one or two years.

If the State is sufficiently far-sighted in identifying the repercussions and the opportunities of the changes occurring (1) in the international trade; (2) in cargo volume, their direction and type of commodities, (3) marine environmental changes, Sri Lanka has to consider developing Trincomalee as a container port by now. A modal such as BOT or PPP (Public Private Partnership) for development of Trincomalee would surely kindle a lot of interest from various international quarters. Under such a scenario, Hambanthota would share the hub status with Trincomalee.

A developed port at Trincomalee will become the centre of attraction in 10-15 years time when endogenous factors such as those listed next are present.

A host of exogenous factors will also have a positive effect on making Trincomalee qualified to become next hub in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, now is the most opportune time to decide the next move of the country in terms of developing the shipping industry by developing Trincomalee as a container port. (