A busy day at North China’s Tianjin Port

By Weng Yufei, North China’s Tianjin Port is always bustling with vitality. Every day, the port welcomes a steady stream of over 100 colossal container ships, with more than 20,000 heavy-duty trucks thundering across its vast expanses.

According to Wang Bin, a manager with China Ocean Shipping Agency Tianjin Co., Ltd., the cargo and container throughput of the port has been rising steadily. “We are obviously busier this year than the last,” said Wang, who has been working at the port for two decades.

Ports are a “barometer” of the economy. As a gate to the sea of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region in north China, Tianjin Port handled 9.58 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in the first five months of this year, up 5.1 percent year on year, hitting a historical high.

At the crack of dawn, Wang arrived at the Yuanhang International Ore Terminal, the largest ore terminal of Tianjin Port, where the massive bulk carrier “Cape Asia” was ready to discharge its mammoth cargo of 171,400 tons of iron ore.

Since November 2023, the terminal has witnessed a dramatic surge in its operations. From February to April this year, the terminal’s monthly throughput has maintained double-digit growth compared to the same period last year, reaching a new high in the last five years.

Completing his work at the ore terminal, Wang immediately made his way to the roll-on roll-off terminal, or ro-ro terminal, to handle relevant procedures. “This year, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of ro-ro vessels, so I have to make more frequent trips to the terminals,” said Wang. As a major auto import and export hub in north China, Tianjin Port exactly mirrors the surge in China’s automotive exports.

After lunch, Wang rushed back to his office. “I need to handle the work for the liner service between Tianjin Port and Ethiopia, and coordinate the container operations,” he explained. Wang noted that the liner service has seen a notable increase this year, leading to a container shortage caused by the high volume of cargo. As someone who routinely liaises with Ethiopian shipping companies, Wang said this was an unprecedented situation for him.

Tianjin Port maintains trade connections with over 500 ports in more than 180 countries and regions worldwide. It has close ties with “old friends” and is also gaining more “new friends.” On May 6, Tianjin Port launched a direct container shipping route to the east coast of South America. On May 15, a direct route to the east coast of the United States was opened. On May 16, it launched a new direct shipping route to Central America. “Tianjin Port remains committed to expanding its shipping routes and will never cease its steps of opening up,” said Liu Yakun, Wang’s colleague who is responsible for container shipping businesses. According to Liu, enterprises have been showing a strong demand since the launch of the three new routes. The port’s increasing regional presence has unleashed its potential for transshipment to and from the inland.

At 4:00 P.M., Wang arrived at the Huisheng Terminal. Across the street, heavy-duty trucks loaded with containers were departing the Tianjin Xingang North Container Central Station for destinations as north as Jilin and as west as Xinjiang. Cargoes from 14 provinces were being shipped out from Tianjin Port via sea-rail intermodal transportation.

On the other side, a project to expand the station is currently underway. “The uptick in foreign trade in specific inland provinces has boosted the need for sea-rail intermodal transportation, creating a highly optimistic market outlook.” said an employee of the station.

As dusk fell, Wang concluded his work at the Huisheng Terminal and made his way to the world’s first smart zero-carbon container terminal at Tianjin Port. While the three 200,000-ton berths of the terminal were occupied by massive vessels, not a single staff member was visible. Instead, Level-4 autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) transport robots hauled containers, with operators in the central control room maneuvering levers and buttons based on real-time video feeds to load and unload containers. Several wind turbines were spinning vigorously outside the central control room, supplying electricity to the terminal. The terminal has achieved self-sufficient green power supply, resulting in zero carbon emissions throughout the entire process.

Currently, all container and dry bulk cargo berths at Tianjin Port are covered by shore power, and multiple terminals have achieved self-sufficient green power supply. “When I started working here, some of the terminals were just dirt lots; 20 years later, the terminals have been increasingly intelligent and clean,” Wang said.

Tianjin Port has been constantly enhancing its smart port construction with the continuous growth of ships and gradual expansion of the port. This year, the port launched an intelligent container terminal control system with fully autonomous and controllable software and hardware. It has also introduced China’s first integrated intelligent system for general cargo with independent intellectual property rights.
Intelligent systems have greatly improved the operational efficiency of the port. For instance, the maximum daily unloading volume of the traditional berths at the Yuanhang International Ore Terminal increased by nearly 90 percent following its transition to automated operations.

Deep into the night, Tianjin Port’s terminals were still bustling with activities, marked by increased throughput volumes, a constant flow of vehicles and vessels, and intelligent machinery working tirelessly. The activities of a single day at Tianjin Port vividly showcase the dynamic momentum and robustness of the Chinese economy.

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