Two cities – one location.

Bremen’s ports play in the first league of European competition. Because they share the work – and have long since sought their business beyond their own quayside.

It is a concert, only without music. The orchestra of people and machines plays harmoniously together, in time with globalisation. It is packed in steel boxes, blue, yellow and red, which float through the air and crash on asphalt or metal, while the wind whistles around their sharp edges. The containers hold people’s wishes: Computers from the Far East, boards from South America, flowers from Africa. And yet they mean danger. “If I load a ship the wrong way,” says Hartmut Mangels, “it gets a sideways turn or twists along its own axis. Then I break it in a jiffy, in no time at all, in the middle.”

Container handling is Lego for logisticians. And here at the terminals of the port in Bremerhaven, the game is played with experience and perfection. At the mouth of the Weser, around three million square metres of space offer a gigantic field for countless of the six-metre-long standard boxes. More than 50 cranes lift and lower up to 30 containers per hour along the quay wall, which is almost five kilometres long. In 2011, they handled a total of about six million units with a total weight of more than 60 million tons.

But sometimes such a box breaks – and the careful structure gets out of step. For decades he was responsible for cargo handling as ship planner and operations manager at the Eurogate container terminal in Bremerhaven. Today he is retired, but still guides guests around the site. “If something like this happens, we have to crawl into the ship and take out 20 tons of ham in cans by hand,” he says. “There are no buffer times here, we can’t afford delays.” No matter what happens, whether autumn storms do not whirl firmly lashed empty containers through the air or in winter snow and “thick fog” make the search for individual containers more difficult. Mangels says: “You have to see the whole, not just the individual ship. You don’t have it in your computer how to do it. That’s in your head.”

Here on the coast, many good minds come together and make sure that the Bremen harbours look pretty good today. Spread over the two locations Bremen and Bremerhaven, they form one of the largest port areas in Europe with a total throughput of 80 million tonnes (2011). In the container business they are Europe’s number 4, in Germany only Hamburg outstrips them. With more than 2.1 million vehicles shipped, Bremerhaven is the country’s automobile hub and has even succeeded in displacing the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to second place. While Bremerhaven concentrates on containers and cars, Bremen takes care of piece goods and bulk goods such as wood and ores, handles particularly heavy goods such as steel and also sensitive machines such as space transporters for the International Space Station ISS. The ports are an enormous engine for the economic power of the north – and an important employer for the federal state: around 80,000 jobs depend on them.

They play well together in Bremen. Politicians are setting the course for port development, port operators are preparing the ground for future business with investments in locks and quay facilities. Above all, however, the port companies themselves are moving their location forward. In Bremen, there are various medium-sized companies that maintain and expand their often traditional businesses – for example with coffee or grain. In Bremerhaven, the BLG Logistics Group in particular is pushing into the future. The formerly sedate group, once ridiculed with the ascription “BitteLangsamGehen” (please slow down), is now a global logistics service provider that has long since ceased to limit itself to working at the edge of the port.

Two cities, a port with a pronounced division of labour and great power – this is the result of decades of development, driven by the worldwide trend to transport everything in containers. This development also determined the history of BLG, the Bremer Lagerhaus-Gesellschaft, which since its foundation by 65 merchants in 1877 has directed the fortunes of the port and expanded Bremen-Stadt into an important transhipment centre. In the past, it operated cranes and sheds, around which a large number of smaller port operations settled whose job it was to redistribute or process the valuable freight. No one spoke of Bremerhaven at that time.

When the container began its triumphal march at the end of the 1960s, the focus shifted to Bremerhaven. In 1966 the US freighter “Fairland”, the first container ship ever, landed in Bremen’s overseas port, whereupon the Hanseatic League quickly set up their first container terminal. But soon the port of Bremen was no longer able to cope with the growing volume. BLG successively relocated the business to Bremerhaven, where the first container terminal went into operation in 1971. Since then, overseas traffic with around five sixths of the total transhipment has been handled via the North Sea port. The first small facility has now grown into three huge terminals.

Plans, technology – and many years of experience

“Crates, boxes, mandolins” – for Hartmut Mangels the times of conventional piece goods are only a memory. His skin folded in the wind, he stands in his red jacket at the Bremerhaven Stromkaje. Efficiency characterises this place today. Work according to plan that begins long before a ship moors in the harbour and ideally leaves it again after a few hours. Like the almost 138-metre-long black container ship, which regularly travels between the ports on the North and Baltic Seas and is currently being loaded.

Days earlier, the Bremerhaven planners had already compared the ship’s cargo list with the containers, most of which were delivered by rail or truck, and drawn up a stowage plan. It resembles a three-dimensional puzzle: the crates are sorted by weight so that the freighter does not get a list, and by destination, because no time is to be wasted in any port by laboriously repacking containers from the depths of the ship’s belly.

Time is money. Therefore, when the ship arrives, the containers are already pre-sorted in straight rows and three layers high at the quay edge so that the 15-metre-high van carriers can quickly transport them to the appropriate cranes. The drivers receive detailed instructions on a monitor as to what they should reach where, but it is still not always easy to find the right container. When snow covers the row numbers painted on the asphalt, the Carrier drivers have to count the rows, starting from one of the lamp posts that illuminate the area with floodlights like in a football stadium.

It is – despite the technology – experience and attentiveness that keep the container concert going. Both are required when a ship arrives late at the port or blocks a berth due to engine damage. When containers break. When the loading plan changes again at the last minute because a truck has broken down. When a crane breaks down. When, for whatever reason, time is of the essence. Bremerhaven responds with a “hot-seat system” for which every dock worker must be able to operate every machine. Then employees are moved between the terminals, cranes are moved. “A plan is great,” says Hartmut Mangels succinctly. “But in practice you always work against it, you make it new. And if we have to, we order our people to work extra hours.”

There is also enough to do in normal operation. Within the past ten years, the volume of containers handled in Bremerhaven has almost doubled. The port benefited from growing overseas traffic and was also able to supplement its traditionally strong American trade with cargo from Asia. In addition, the incoming goods are finely distributed from Bremerhaven, within Germany and Central Europe by truck and rail, to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe by smaller ships.