Since 2009 ''MJ'' has been reporting on the Maasvlakte 2 port extension project in Rotterdam: celebrations surrounding completion of the infrastructure were only the end of the beginning however, let’s return for an update.

The Dutch rarely shy away from holding a party and a number of milestones in the construction of Maasvlakte 2 have been celebrated including ribbon-cutting and big-red-button pressing events attended by royalty and government officials, attracting media attention both from the Netherlands and abroad.

Your correspondent recalls in 2008 standing in the desert-like surroundings of what was to become the FutureLand visitor centre (a facility of which the value in ensuring local and wider communities are engaged with the project can easily be underestimated) literally being on the coastline and looking out to sea. Just three years later the sea and the new coastline was behind the new sea wall several miles away

The land (and water) in between is now home to a hive of activity from two state-of-the-art container terminals to an enormous building assembling wind turbine foundations and to an area of water home to what by some measures may be considered the world's largest ship.

As you drive around the new Maasvlakteweg perimeter road, large areas of reclaimed land and deep water remain undeveloped, in effect given over to nature. From the outset Port of Rotterdam Authority (PRA) stated development would only take place as tenants came along rather than develop areas on-spec. These undeveloped areas are now steadily diminishing, progress so far demonstrating the logic behind the thinking and creating an air of orderly progress.

Before reviewing latest developments, it is worth touching on the long and somewhat convoluted road to the present day, the project first appeared in people's thoughts as far back as 1969. Dirk Koppenol’s interesting book 'Lobby for Land' explains in detail how incredibly complex the project was to become, involving considerations of finance and local and national politics.

Like many port cities historically centered inland and dependent on waterway connections to the sea, Rotterdam is a classic example of where over centuries expansion has seen the port's footprint gradually stretch towards the coastline, except in Rotterdam's case of course they didn't stop at the coast.

Historically, port expansion in the Netherlands has been linked to peaks and trough of the need to provide employment, events such as recovering from wars triggering growth. Examples in more recent times include construction of Botlek (1955), Europoort (1964) and later Maasvlakte (1), all financed approximately two thirds by national government and one third the municipality of Rotterdam. In more recent times of course expansion has been driven by the need to react to the supply and demand equation.

The possibility of a second Maasvlakte prompted wide and often passionate debate leading to several possible alternative options including coast-hugging expansion to the south around the Voorne area to a wider solution to satisfying the country's need for port expansion by expanding existing ports at Moerdijk, Terneuzen and Vlissingen.

Historically, port authorities generally follow patterns of continuity, politicians however have considerably shorter 'career spans', an inescapable reality which contributed to the lengthy period from first idea to first shovel in the ground as such given the natural involvement of national as well as local government.

Space prevents a detailed chronology of events but of note was the establishment of Mainport Project Rotterdam (which included Schiphol Airport) as a vehicle to among other things drive the development of Maasvlakte 2.

The enormous investment, particularly the requirement for central government to fund the outer seawall (a strategic flood defence affecting communities beyond the port's boundaries and representing one third of the total cost) led to something of a power struggle where RPA had to accept a greater central government share in the port, the eventual division being seventy percent by the municipality of Rotterdam and thirty percent the Dutch state.

Maasvlakte 2 was to consume virgin land and a considerable area of sea so it was inevitable that environmental considerations would influence progress. A key move was where RPA developed a high level of engagement with environmental groups whereby they became stakeholders rather than just protest groups and in June 2004 the financial agreement between RPA and Dutch government was signed for Maasvlakte 2’s construction.

Outside of the area itself, the deal included creation of 750ha of nature reserve and 25,000ha of sea reserve and finally in September 2008, after fifteen years of planning construction of Maasvlakte 2 commenced despite there still being legal challenges from environmental groups. Lost public areas were to be more than compensated for with creation of beaches and facilities exceeding what existed previously.

Enough of the planning, what happened thereafter? Preparation had been underway in the background for many years but once plant and compounds appeared, finally it was clear that Maasvlakte 2 was on its way.

Construction was entrusted to a consortium of Boskalis and Van Oord to be known as PUMA (Projectorganisatie Uitbreiding Maasvlakte). These two Dutch giants of the dredging and marine civil engineering world deployed a fleet of dredgers to recover sand from sites offshore and gradually win new land from the sea. One had to look a few miles out to sea however for first visible signs of a project that required cartographers to once again (after Maasvlakte 1) redraw maps of the Netherlands coastline.

Initially, material was delivered via the dredgers' bottom doors so not much to see at that stage until one day at low tide, new land could be seen emerging from the sea. Once the reclaimed land could be 'occupied' as such progress advanced rapidly, particularly once the islands offshore were connected to the mainland.

As this new coastline to the Netherlands was formed, sea access (to Maasvlakte 2) was via a gap left in the seawall. Eventually this was filled, another milestone celebrated in a ceremony when the old coastline, at the end of the Yangtzehaven was removed in a carefully coordinated operation harnessing the incoming tide to do the work whereafter sea access was forever via the existing entrance to Rotterdam at Maasmond.

This part of the project could easily be overlooked as just another stage in the process but was in fact a classic example of Dutch mastery of water management dating back centuries.

An interactive display at FutureLand maps progress chronologically in terms of numbers and while it stretches into the future up to 2030, it is a sober reminder of how such mega-projects can take up hugely disproportionate amounts of time at the planning stages. This is said considering that first thoughts for this particular expansion is recorded back in 1969 against where construction started on 1 September 2008 and by 2015 the container terminals were operational.

Figures vary with time but as of 2017, headline statistics include: 252.8m m3 of sand recovered to form Maasvlakte 2, 1,188ha of new land above water level and 7.3m tons of rubble and concrete blocks used (involving recycling the old seawall blocks and importing stone from Scandinavia). At the peak of activity in 2013, 1,400 people were involved in construction.

It was perhaps predictable that the first major commercial activity at Maasvlakte 2 would involve container terminals. Global trade patterns, generally influenced by world economic trends can change virtually overnight, ensuring ports can meet the challenges of accommodating such changes, particularly if involving expansion, takes a lot longer of course, as illustrated here. RPA and the terminal operators had generally been aware however that expansion of existing facilities would be inevitable if Rotterdam was to maintain its premier position in Europe.

The first two tenants at Maasvlakte 2 were APM Terminals (APMT) and Rotterdam World Gateway (RWG), the latter a consortium of: APL, MOL, HMM, CMA CGM and terminal operator DP World. APMT and the carriers of the newly-formed RWG already had a long-standing presence in Rotterdam including at Maasvlakte (1). Expansion into Maasvlakte 2 however was to involve more than just a bolted-on extension to existing facilities.

Both terminals, in the newly named Prinses Amaliahaven broke new ground (in more ways than one) with the decision to take automation and the desire to power the operation as much as possible if not completely from renewable sources to a new level. The automation included ship-to-shore gantry cranes operated remotely with no one actually on the cranes themselves.

A driving force behind this advance in automation was that as stacks on new-generation mega-container ships got higher and wider coupled with constant pressure to speed up the operation it was considered the limit was approaching whereby the crane operator could safely and efficiently maintain the overall pace of progress while on the crane itself.

It was considered a safer more efficient approach would be to locate the operators in a building remote from the cranes themselves, relying on technology to guide them in moving the containers, especially as part of the transfer of boxes between the automated guided vehicles and the ship could be automated further still.

The changes raised issues around working arrangements outside the scope of this feature but one can recall years gone by when labour-intensive manual cargo-handling gave way to mechanical methods, of which the container is a classic example. Another aspect of the container terminals at Maasvlakte 2 is the ultimate aim for the electrical energy to run the complete operation to be generated from local renewable sources.

Looking at the container terminals themselves, RWG occupies an area of 108ha with eleven gantry cranes servicing a 1,100m deepwater quay and three smaller cranes serving the 550m barge feeder quay. Across the water of the Prinses Amaliahaven APMT occupies a similar area with (phase 1) covering an area including a 1,000m deepsea and 500m feeder quay serviced by eight and three gantry cranes respectively.

Yangtzehaven is home to the Euromax terminal operated by ECT who celebrated its 50th anniversary providing container-handling services in Rotterdam in 2016. Removal of land at the end of the Yangtzehaven extended what is the natural line of the existing quay at Euromax making it well placed to expand further should it wish to do so.

From an early stage, RPA stated its desire to change the 'modal shift' or balance between rail, barge and road transport for onward transshipment of containers to and from the hinterland. The intention is to increase the share of rail and barge over road freight, reducing pressure on local roads particularly the A15, the Rotterdam ring road and beyond. Both terminals have a rail terminal/line network linking with the Betuweroute dedicated freight rail line to Germany.

A container transfer ‘mini-port’ is now established at Alblasserdam just outside the confines of the city to take boxes off the road and onto barges for the final legs to and from the deepsea terminals.

An interesting area of development in the port itself is increasing activities in the offshore sector. Historically, steady growth in traditional cargo-handling including: oil, dry bulk, containers, general cargo and petroleum products has meant relatively little activity in the offshore sector.

This situation is changing however, RPA now actively pursuing involvement with sectors of the offshore industry. Most obvious sign here was the arrival in January 2015 of the decommissioning/pipelaying vessel Pieter Schelte (since renamed Pioneering Spirit). This 382m long, 124m wide giant required a location able to accommodate its ballasted draught of around 26m for completion of its platform lifting and pipelaying elements, and as a home between commissions.

The undeveloped partly-enclosed 'lake' by then named Prinses Alexiahaven was ideal and owner Allseas Engineering signed a ten-year agreement with RPA to use the location as its base. With accommodation for over 500 people, shoreside support infrastructure for Pioneering Spirit was essential and a constant procession of small craft regularly shuttle personnel and equipment to and from the Prinses Margriethaven, the small service vessel harbour adjacent to FutureLand. The arrival of Pioneering Spirit has spawned new areas of opportunity for smaller fish to feed off the back of.

Rotterdam is of course not devoid of serving the offshore industry. Royal IHC's shipyard upriver from Rotterdam at Krimpen aan den Ijssel has built a succession of pipelayers which along with similar others from shipyards around the world have occupied berths at Huisman's facilities at Schiedam having pipelaying towers and associated heavy equipment installed. Across the Nieuwe Maas at the RDM site, Ampelmann now see regular visits from offshore vessels having its motion-compensated personnel access systems installed or removed.

These are just two examples of offshore activity at Rotterdam outside Maasvlakte 2 but it is to here we return to what can be described as a significant development in a sector previously not heavily associated with Rotterdam; offshore wind. During 2015 construction of a building for Sif Group started which was to dominate the skyline on a 42ha site for production of foundations for offshore windfarms. Rotterdam has come late to the offshore windfarm scene but developments in Dutch waters as one example have now created more of a local demand.

Offshore wind evolved from its onshore cousin but public resistance to unbridled growth both in numbers and size has led for example in the UK, to a hiatus in the onshore sector. There is less resistance to windfarms at sea however and technological advances have led to ever larger turbines, in turn leading to limitations transporting components from factories located inland to sea ports for loading onto installation vessels.

In short, production facilities are now better suited on the coast rather than inland. The available land, deep water and easy access to the sea put Rotterdam in a strong position to take advantage and opened the door again to the opportunity for development of Maasvlakte 2.

Sif Group is a major player on the foundation manufacturing scene and now has a significant presence at Maasvlakte 2 in its turbine foundation production plant. Specifically designed for extra-large foundations, the new facility can prepare and load-out monopiles up to 11m diameter, 120m in length and up to 2,000 tonnes weight. Such foundations can accommodate new generation 8MW and above turbines.

Just two days into 2017 and barely 18 months after construction started (and before its completion) the first monopiles for the Galloper offshore windfarm off the UK south-east coast were being loaded onto an installation vessel.

There can be little doubt that with the available undeveloped land at Maasvlakte 2, attracting activity in the offshore sector will be on the list of possibilities for RPA.

Talk of providing recycling facilities for decommissioned North Sea oil and gas platforms was in the air locally a while ago but there would no doubt be environmental concerns among local communities which brings us back to the beginning and where the story of how Maasvlakte 2’s birth prompted a book in itself.

Other developments on this new extension to the Netherlands are worthy of mention. Logistics parks providing warehousing, distribution and value-added services are part of the story of moving manufactured goods from factory to end user and are now an established part of terminals handling containerised goods.

Prior to the construction of Maasvlakte 2, a nearby logistics park (one of several in Rotterdam) served the existing terminals and being adjacent to RWG and APMT the gradual expansion it is now seeing is a natural development of the area as a whole.

Facilities for storing empty containers are another area of new development along with the recently opened Maasvlakte Plaza, an international transport park with large-scale truck parking and facilities for both drivers and trucks.

Transshipment of cargo is in the DNA of business activity for Rotterdam and with increasing demand for such facilities, RPA identified an area in the north-west part of the inner waters of Maasvlakte 2 that could provide such services. In June 2014, the first transshipment of oil products took place between vessels at one of two dolphin-supported berths. The facilities are available for both liquid and dry cargo transfer between vessels, another potential use of the area stated as being a safe area of refuge for ships in need.

Summing up, those within the port community talk down the prospect of a Maasvlakte 3, understandably questioning the feasibility of encroaching even further into the North Sea. The story of Rotterdam's growth however has for centuries been linked to preempting growth as much as responding to demand.

It goes without saying that global trade growth will not pause because a particular port has reached the limit of its own growth which begs the question has Rotterdam reached that limit? Suddenly, the long-term prospect of Maasvlakte 2 being 'full up' is not an unreasonable vision and viewing the area now compared to the (relatively recent) days of being an expensive undeveloped desert, there is a definite impression of land being taken up fast. Prospective tenants need to take note perhaps, could they be too late?

By Peter Barker