THE LONG GAME: The story of Tuas mega port

Keeping the ships sailing in – why the Tuas mega port matters

In 1966, the Government decided to build the first container port in South-east Asia in Tanjong Pagar (below), when such a concept was still new. The terminal opened in 1972.
In 1966, the Government decided to build the first container port in South-east Asia in Tanjong Pagar (below), when such a concept was still new. The terminal opened in 1972.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Singapore has thrived by betting big on future trends that make or break economies, whether in air or sea transport, urban development or water sustainability. It is how the Republic rose to become the world's top transshipment hub, a leading air hub and a model liveable city. In the second of a three-part series on major infrastructure projects, Insight looks at the move to consolidate all port operations in Tuas.

It is touted as the upcoming site of a mega port - Tuas in the west where Singapore's city port operations, including Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Panjang, will relocate to. The move will free up land for the Greater Southern Waterfront development, three times the size of Marina Bay.

But just how big is "mega"?

After all, much is at stake - the port operations now run by PSA make Singapore the world's top container transshipment hub, so the Tuas mega port must keep building on this success. This is especially as the maritime industry is a key part of the economy, accounting for 7 per cent of gross domestic product.

Yet challenges loom: While Singapore currently holds the title of world's busiest port, other countries in the region are eyeing bigger slices of the transshipment pie and boosting their infrastructure.

A visit to the new port's location, though, shows the sheer, jaw-dropping scale of what is being developed. A construction yard at the tip of the southernmost end of Tuas is a hive of activity round the clock, as 500 workers labour to assemble massive structures that will form the building blocks for the future mega port.

These watertight retaining structures - called caissons - weigh 15,000 tonnes each, the equivalent of 8,000 cars. At 28m, each is as tall as a 10-storey HDB block.

There are two production lines at the construction yard churning out eight caissons a month. When completed, each caisson is towed to sea, where they are placed on a foundation on the seabed. A total of 138 caissons have been installed as of Nov 13 - more than 60 per cent of the 222 needed to form the wharf for Phase 1 of the Tuas mega port.

 

First announced by then Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew in 2012, the mega port will consolidate all of Singapore's port operations in Tuas. It will open in four phases, with the first berths expected to be operational in 2021.

The multibillion-dollar Tuas project will increase the port's capacity to 65 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of cargo, more than double what the port handled last year.

This expansion is the latest in a series of bold moves to grow Singapore's port by building ahead of demand. Tuas, in fact, was considered as a potential location before Pasir Panjang was chosen in the early 1990s.

Insight examines why the port is now moving to Tuas some two decades later, and how the mega project is slated to boost Singapore's maritime industry.

BOXING SMART WITH CONTAINER TERMINAL

Singapore has long sought to ride the waves of demand in trade. In 1966, the Government decided to build the first container port in South-east Asia in Tanjong Pagar, when such a concept was still new.

STRATEGIC VISION

As we redevelop the western part of Singapore, we will try to take full advantage of that efficiency of a better port. So it's quite strategic. It's beyond just port.

URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY CHIEF EXECUTIVE LIM ENG HWEE

That terminal opened in 1972 and "allowed us to catch the wave of containerisation before everyone else in the region", says Mr Andrew Tan, CEO of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

As trade volume increased in the 1970s and 1980s, then chairman of port operator PSA Howe Yoon Choong recognised there were physical limits to expanding the city terminals and commissioned studies on where to site future ones.One idea was to co-locate a container terminal with the airport in Changi. But this was deemed unfeasible as height restrictions meant tall cranes for moving cargo could not be used.

In 1986, the Government announced it would build a container port on the small southern island of Pulau Brani as part of a $1.5 billion development plan to increase capacity. But even as that was being built, the search was on for where to site the next container port.

"It boiled down to Tuas and Pasir Panjang," says current Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) chief executive Lim Eng Hwee. "Each had its pros and cons."

From a land use perspective, the URA favoured having the port farther away in Tuas so that transporting containers by heavy vehicles would be kept in the west. "Obviously we like the heavy infrastructure to be outside, farther away from the city, so it will generate less traffic," Mr Lim says.

Doing so would also allow the URA to explore other uses for the prime land along the shore.

STAYING AHEAD OF THE CURVE

Even as we adopt the first generation of technologies, we will need to test new technologies as they avail themselves.

MARITIME AND PORT AUTHORITY OF SINGAPORE CHIEF EXECUTIVE ANDREW TAN

But the PSA favoured Pasir Panjang as it would operate as one complete system with the city terminals. This would translate to lower costs compared with Tuas.

In an interview with a Singapore think-tank, the Centre for Liveable Cities, PSA CEO Tan Chong Meng had said locating the port in Pasir Panjang meant cost savings of several hundred million dollars a year due to its greater connectivity with the city terminals.

Says URA's Mr Lim: "There were many operational advantages at the Pasir Panjang location. That was the deciding factor."

In 1992, the Government said it would build a new port in Pasir Panjang with a capacity of 36 million TEUs, unveiling plans to expand this to 50 million TEUs in 2004.

In 2010, the Economic Strategies Committee proposed that the 2011 Concept Plan study the feasibility of a consolidated port in Tuas in the long term, with enough capacity to ensure Singapore remained competitive.

The plan to relocate the port to Tuas was approved, and is now being executed.

Said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a 2015 speech: "We looked at Tuas before; we were not ready. Since then we have made more reclamation in Tuas and we have looked at it again and this time we think we can do a really first-class port from scratch in Tuas."

WHY CONSOLIDATE IN TUAS?

Tuas is a suitable location because of its sheltered deep waters and proximity to both international shipping routes and major industrial areas in the western part of Singapore, MPA's Mr Tan tells Insight.

Besides improving capacity to meet longer-term demands, having all container activities in a single location will reduce the distance and complexity of transporting containers between terminals, he says.

This, in turn, boosts efficiency.

"Consolidation will eliminate the need for inter-terminal haulage, which can also cause road congestion," he says, adding that the move will save time and reduce business costs for port operations.

It will also free up prime land for housing and urban development as part of the Greater Southern Waterfront, he adds.

The MPA chief executive also notes that the shipping industry has consolidated, with the main lines organising themselves into major alliances such as 2M, Ocean Alliance and THE Alliance.

These have also moved towards using larger vessels, including mega container ships that hold 18,000 to 22,000 standard containers.

Tuas Port was envisioned to provide the additional capacity to meet the needs of these major alliances, and to anchor key shipping players here, Mr Tan says.

For instance, Tuas is designed to serve mega vessels that can hold 24,000 standard containers or more. It has long linear berths and a depth of 23m below sea level at the basins and approach channels, to accommodate mega vessels longer than 400m at all tides.

It will also have quay cranes with a longer reach to handle these large vessels which carry 26 rows of containers abreast.

Mr Lim, who was chief planner at the URA before he became its CEO, says having a mega port in Tuas will allow government agencies to "flesh out synergy with other industries". He cites proximity to industries like logistics and to the upcoming Jurong Lake District, slated to be the second central business district. On the latter, he notes there is potential for maritime services to eventually cluster there.

"As we redevelop the western part of Singapore, we will try to take full advantage of that efficiency of a better port. So it's quite strategic. It's beyond just port," Mr Lim says.

Asked if the port terminals should have been consolidated in Tuas from the beginning, Mr Lim says considerations were different at that time.

Capacity was projected at 36 million TEUs then, and Pasir Panjang offered the advantage of being closer to city terminals. "If at the point in time you made a very costly decision to move (to Tuas) and operational costs continued to be very high for 20, 30 years as you operate there, we may not be as competitive," he says.

PLANNING FOR THE PORT

The MPA started working with other government agencies on the Tuas mega port after the Economic Strategies Committee made its recommendation in 2010.

MPA engineer Cheow Yoke Ting, 27, says the first step was to develop a port master plan looking at location, overall layout and container handling capacity.

"The size of the port was determined based on assessments of the forecast demand of Singapore's container handling capacity," Mr Cheow says.

He adds that planners have to take into account projected global economic growth and the growth in global sea trade in deciding on capacity. After establishing this and a timeline for construction, the next step is to plan the terminal's physical layout. This includes the location and size of facilities.

PSA, as the port operator, was also deeply involved in the planning and design of Tuas port.

Ms Tan Liang Hui, who is assistant vice-president for Tuas Port Development at PSA Singapore, says PSA provided advice on areas such as terminal design, port infrastructure, equipment and technology.

It also helped the MPA to evaluate the feasibility of the various proposals, she adds.

Mr Cheow says planners narrowed down layouts to a few feasible ones during the initial physical planning stage, after considering environmental conditions and operational constraints, among other things.

Between 2012 and last year, studies were carried out to finalise the design of Tuas Terminal Phase 1, including detailed environmental impact assessments and traffic impact studies.

Work on Phase 1 began in February 2015.

NEXT-GENERATION PORT

The Tuas mega port is set to be a showcase for the latest port technologies and systems.

Singapore hopes to stay ahead of the competition by adopting the latest innovations, to boost productivity and efficiency in its ports as well as reduce reliance on manual labour.

MPA and PSA are already laying the groundwork for a smart port.

PSA currently has the largest automated yard crane fleet globally, with 186 automated rail-mounted gantry cranes in Phases 3 and 4 of the port in Pasir Panjang.

These automated cranes no longer require a dedicated operator.

One remote crane specialist now oversees five automated cranes, monitoring things like whether the the prime mover transporting the cargo is in the right position for unloading, and if there are any issues with the cranes.

Mr Juraimi Abdul Kadir, 35, supervises a team of crane specialists at Pasir Panjang Terminal Building 3.

He began his career at PSA as a cargo driver in 2010, and rose through the ranks to mentor new drivers before he joined the team operating automated cranes last July.

"It was a big challenge for me," he recalls, of learning how to operate the new system after seven years of transporting cargo. The Clementi West resident is now looking forward to the move to Tuas .

Like Mr Juraimi, PSA senior electrical engineer Ryan Chan, 28, is also testing new technology in anticipation of the move to Tuas. He is one of the engineers overseeing trials of electric automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in the port.

Mr Chan said he does maintenance, troubleshooting and analysis of the current fleet of AGVs. There will be 30 such vehicles at Pasir Panjang Terminal by early next year.

Besides AGVs, MPA and PSA are also exploring the use of drones and robots for tasks ranging from inspection and repairs to the distribution of spare parts.

But MPA's Mr Tan also notes that technology will continue to advance as the Tuas port is developed.

"Even as we adopt the first generation of technologies, we will need to test new technologies as they avail themselves," he says.

Mr Tan adds that the new Tuas port is part of a wider strategy to develop Singapore into a global maritime hub that has a vibrant cluster of maritime services and activities. It is already home to more than 140 international shipping groups from Asia, Europe and the Americas, he notes.

For its part, PSA will have to plug itself into evolving trade routes brought about by initiatives such as the Belt and Road, e-commerce and industry 4.0, Mr Tan says. These changes could affect the flow of cargo to Singapore's port, he warns.

"We need to ensure we track these developments closely, make sure we remain connected to the shifting trade patterns and strengthen our port connectivity," he says.


Waterfront: Housing plans in 1 to 2 years

Plans for housing development on the plot of land occupied by Keppel Club will be ready in one to two years' time, and exhibited for the public to give feedback.

The 44ha plot will be the first part of the future Greater Southern Waterfront to be developed, when Keppel's lease expires in 2021. The private golf club's history dates back to 1904, when it was founded.

The rest of the prime land for the waterfront city will be freed up as the port terminals in the city and Pasir Panjang gradually move to Tuas by 2040.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority has said the new waterfront city will have mixed uses, from housing and commercial to cultural and entertainment. Whether it is mostly private housing or a mix of private and public housing remains a question mark.

URA chief executive Lim Eng Hwee tells Insight that urban planners will be able to "create wonderful things" when the waterfront land is freed up.

Singapore is a tropical city, which typically conjures up images of beaches and plenty of developments facing the sea, he notes. But not much of the waterfront here is accessible apart from areas such as Sentosa and East Coast Park.

"Which is why... once the vision is taken to move the port out, we developed a concept for the southern waterfront. There's so much potential," he says.

The URA unveiled six broad ideas for the Greater Southern Waterfront for public feedback in 2013.

These included creating a new reservoir, a 30km waterfront promenade that snakes around the coast for walking and cycling, and green corridors that link areas like Mount Faber to the hillock on Pulau Brani.

Public feedback was "overwhelmingly supportive", says Mr Lim. The URA will largely retain those broad ideas as it moves into more detailed planning for the site.

Mr Lim says technical studies will be done on areas like transportation after the URA refines its plan.

The new waterfront city will require a "very good transport system", he says, noting that the city terminals are now served only by Keppel Viaduct and Keppel Road.

"Right now, your only road access is Keppel, (where) every morning there's a traffic jam," he says. "You just load 1,000ha of development on the corridor, it will break down."

Planners will have to look at the road network, as well as provide rail, bus and other transportation options, he adds.

The URA is also studying how to shape the profile of the waterfront, and retain elements of port infrastructure, Mr Lim says. He notes that the port is a very important part of Singapore's heritage, having played a key role in the country's national and economic development.

"How can we retain some of that heritage as we develop the area? Should we keep part of the old dock? These are the detailed studies we are doing," he says.

Asked if there will be public housing in the Greater Southern Waterfront, Mr Lim says the Government has not reached the stage where it decides on this as it is "early days".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping the ships sailing in - why the mega port matters '. Print Edition | Subscribe