For nearly twenty years container ships carrying the distinctive logo of Associated Container Transportation (ACT) on their funnels were regular visitors to New Zealand container ports.
The consortium of companies within ACT made it the second largest container shipping group under the British flag, and for much of its history it carried more refrigerated cargo in containers than any other carrier.
This story makes brief mention of the services developed by all the ACT partners, but more specifically covers the history of the trades handled by three ACT shareholders – Blue Star Line, Cunard (Port Line) and Ellermans – under the banner of Associated Container Transportation (Australia) Ltd. (ACTA) and its associated companies.
The other companies involved with ACT, Ben Line and T. & J. Harrison, and Ellermans as far as their trades other than to Australia and North America were concerned, developed their own container services under their own names rather than abandoning their individual identities as in the ACTA grouping.
Associated Container Transportation Ltd. was born out of necessity in 1966, and its subsidiary ACTA established direct container links between the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia in 1969, and to New Zealand from these destinations in 1972.
In 1971 the company closely followed Columbus Line in the containerisation of the trade between New Zealand and Australia and the East Coast of North America. It was also one of the partners in the Pacific Australia Direct (PAD Line) service from Australia to the West Coast of North America.
By 1991 its principal shareholder decided the financial returns from container shipping were not adequate, and sold the company to its larger British rival – P&O Containers. The ACTA United Kingdom and European trade shares were merged with the P&O services on the same routes and the North American trades were onsold to Blue Star Line. The remaining ramifications of the deal involved a major restructuring of all British liner shipping.
ACTA’s origins were linked to the overall development of containerisation in the early 1960s. At that time British cargo liner companies had started to look closely at the systems being developed in the United States for the carriage of containerised cargoes. Freight forwarders and shipping companies engaged in the high-volume trades between the United States mainland and Puerto Rico in the east and Hawaii in the west were spending vast sums of money on the development of unit load and container systems to enable them to move away from the traditional labour-intensive methods of handling loose cargoes. The new concept would see ship turn-round time dramatically improved, resulting in fewer ships being required, with substantial savings in manpower both at sea and on shore. Cargo in units and containers would also be better protected against damage and pillage en route.
The development and implementation of the container concept would require huge capital sums for the provision of ships, containers and shore facilities. Few British companies could handle this level of expenditure in isolation.
Although individual companies operated in competition against each other, there was a measure of co-operation within the conference groupings, and in developing such a radical new cargo-handling system the various lines recognised they would be better to combine their technical skills and financial resources to ensure a united approach that would spread the capital exposure.
THE DIE WAS CAST
The die was cast following a shock announcement in London on 27th August 1965 which revealed that four major British liner groups – Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, Ocean Transport and Trading Ltd., British and Commonwealth Shipping Co. Ltd. and Furness Withy and Co. Ltd. – had formed Overseas Containers Limited (OCL).
These lines controlled over sixty per cent of the United Kingdom liner trades and had elected to pool their resources to protect their collective interests and spread the effect of the huge capital investments required for the new developments.
Ocean Transport provided much of the early initiative, as their technical people were well advanced in the study of containerisation.
The remaining British liner companies, already concerned about the expansion plans of Sea-Land and other United States carriers, were even more “out on a limb” following the formation of OCL.
Each company had its own independent agenda, comfortably operating within Conferences, and whilst there was a measure of co-operation in matters which concerned British shipping generally, each line had its own distinctive culture and style of business.
In the majority of cases they were family- owned companies, established in the 19th century, and were fiercely protective of their independence. The one publicly-listed company, Cunard Steam-Ship Company, owner of the Port Line, considered they had equality of status with the four groups forming OCL and made overtures to join the consortium.
They were politely rebuffed with the excuse that too many companies in the group could create problems with the anti-monopoly legislation. Blue Star Line was keen to see all British lines in each trade working together, but this philosophy was also rejected.
An explanation on why the group of British lines did not invite others to join them was blithely given by Sir Donald Anderson, Chairman of the P&O group, in his address at the 1966 annual meeting of the company: “OCL has only four partners because they all recognise the natural law that the more you are together, the happier you may be, but the less you will actually do, and the longer you will take to do it. And in this case, when each extra partner would of necessity bring in several extra problems, they thought that enough was enough.”
As a result of these developments, The Ben Line Steamers Ltd., managed by Wm. Thomson and Company of Edinburgh, Blue Star Line Ltd., controlled by the Vestey family, The Charente Steam-Ship Company Ltd., managed by Thos. and Jas. Harrison Ltd., the Cunard Steam-Ship Company, whose Port Line had a significant share of the Australian/New Zealand and North American trades, privately-owned Ellerman Lines Ltd., holding conference shares in most British liner trades, and Bank Line Ltd., managed by Andrew Weir and Company, were reluctantly forced to come together in discussions to protect their respective interests.
THE ODD’S & SODS OF BRITISH SHIPPING
Somewhat uncharitably described as the “odds and sods” of British shipping by Sir Andrew Crichton, first Chairman of OCL, they were a very mixed group. Ellermans were more concerned than most with their minority interests in a number of services and they were the catalyst in bringing the other lines into collective discussions which culminated in the formation of Associated Container Transportation Limited on 11th January 1966.
The only company who elected not to join the new consortium was Bank Line, who obviously felt their mix of breakbulk and liquid cargoes was unlikely to be containerised for many years. It may have been a decision they subsequently regretted, as some years later they attempted to develop new container services in order to expand their business but were unsuccessful, and obviously lost a lot of money trying to break into established container trades.
ASSOCIATED CONTAINER TRANSPORTATION LIMITED IS FORMED
Associated Container Transportation Limited was established on quite different lines from Overseas Containers Limited. With the latter company, the individual members of the grouping contributed specific capital to OCL and undertook to submerge their identities, whereas with ACT the partners essentially wanted a “holding” company which would oversee their collective interests.
The main object of the company was “ To share matters of mutual interest and to evaluate the feasibility and viability of container services on trade routes in which they are interested”. As each trade was containerised individual lines would make their own capital contributions in accordance with the trade shares each held.
Container vessels specifically built for ACTA services were registered in the names of the individual partners and paid for in proportion to the agreed trade shares.
The vessels in the OCL fleet were each registered to the ownership of one of the shareholders, but P&O set up a separate company – Container Fleets Ltd. – in 1968 to manage the OCL container fleet. The conference shares at that time were in the names of the parent companies.
Both groups secured staffing, either from outside the industry or by seconding personnel from their respective companies, and began an intensive study of all the elements necessary to develop container services on the main line trades.
Policy matters of collective interest to British shipping and those relating to regulatory controls, as well as the keeping of a wary eye on carriers under other national flags already Conference partners, were discussed between OCL and ACT, but everything else was kept closely competitive, with each group developing its own operational systems, container control and marketing techniques.
The wariness between the groups was heightened when Blue Star Line, Port Line and Ellermans set up a fortnightly conventional service from Australia to Japan in September 1967. This trade route was the only significant gap in the comprehensive coverage of world trade routes which could be served by ACT.
The decision to force their way into an established conference line service was quite out of character, as all the lines were strong supporters of the conference system. However, rejection of an application to become members of the Australia/Japan Conference saw the lines take direct action. The Atlas Line, as the new service was called, was short-lived and within little more than two months the sailings ceased, but not before the P&O interests in the Japanese trade had conceded that the Atlas Line partners would participate in any new container service developed between Australia and the Far East.
In a modest retaliation to this action by the Atlas Line, the China Navigation agency in New Zealand was taken from Port Line and given to a P&O group member!
When OCL announced that the first of their services to be containerised would be the Australian trade, ACT prepared to follow suit, with the three ACT partners in that trade forming a subsidiary company – Associated Container Transportation (Australia) Limited (ACTA) – with Cunard and Blue Star each holding 42.5 per cent of the capital and Ellermans the remaining fifteen per cent.
Cunard were keen to strengthen the consortium, and felt they could capitalise on the growing nationalism amongst some Commonwealth countries by encouraging a participation in shipping.
Australia with its vast and growing cargo potential had developed its own Government-owned Australian Coastal Shipping Commission in October 1956 with a fleet of ships drawn mainly from vessels built under Government control during the Second World War.
At that time, however, the line, which was renamed the Australian National Line from 1st January 1957, had no involvement in its overseas shipping. Cunard at one stage contemplated selling a share of Port Line to the Australian Government, but through discussion with Government officials between 1967 and 1969 it was finally decided that Australia would establish its own shipping line and claim a national flag carrier trade share from all the existing lines in the trade.
They were not interested in buying into an existing line, as it was the policy of the Government that any Australian-registered ships must be manned with Australian crews. However, they did agree to work alongside ACTA, and with their Australian National Line (ANL) the United Kingdom/Europe/Australia service of ACTA was developed and marketed as the ACTA/ANL service.
It was initially considered that ANL would charter the ships from ACTA, but an agreement was signed on 22nd April 1969 for the outright purchase of two container vessels.
Compared with the early container developments, the two British consortia were united in at least one area, and that was the standardisation of container sizes. Whilst the three early pioneers – Sea‑Land, Matson and Associated Steamships – had developed containers 8 feet wide and 8ft.6ins. high, Sea-Land boxes were 35 feet long, Matson’s were 24 feet and Associated Steamships were 16ft.8ins.
The International Standards Organisation pressed for universally standard-sized containers to be introduced world wide, by means of legislation through the various Governments. From the late 1960s nearly all the new container services established saw the uniform length of container as either 20 feet or 40 feet.
The other important element in the late sixties was the desire of the shipping lines to move away from handling containers with on-board gantry cranes to shore facilities which would be more efficient and economical, with wharf-based gantry cranes servicing all the container ships calling at an individual berth or port.
The ships ordered by OCL (six 26,800-ton steam turbine vessels each with a container capacity of 1,300 TEU) and by ACTA on 31st July 1967 (three 24,800-ton steam turbine vessels each with a container capacity of 1,130 TEU) were designed for 20- and 40-foot containers and were gearless.
British shipyards proved un-competitive, and eight of the ships were built in two German yards, with only the one (Jervis Bay) in the United Kingdom.
Refrigerated systems were developed for “port hole” containers, with the ship as well as shore units supplying cold air through the containers, rather than using containers each fitted with their individual integral refrigerated unit.
The volumes of refrigerated cargo were large enough to justify the use of a “port hole” system, which invariably provided more cargo space per container than those with integral units and were therefore more attractive for shippers.
Each container had two port holes at the one end (one for ingoing and one for outgoing cold air) to which air ducts could be coupled, either from on-shore tower units or from the ship’s own refrigerating unit. As the 8 foot-high containers were placed in the holds, the port holes automatically lined up with the cold air circulation ducts in the ship.
The cheaper cost of “port hole” insulated containers also helped to offset the costs of providing a shore- and ship-based cold air supply, and the system was ideal for handling large volumes of refrigerated cargo.
The ACTA vessels were built by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack. The individual lines probably had difficulty evolving names which contained a link with the Port Line, Blue Star and Ellerman Lines’ established systems of nomenclature, and as a result the nondescript and unusual naming system evolved by ACTA came in for considerable criticism when it was introduced.
The first ship, launched on 18th October 1968, was named Act 1, followed by Act 2 on 3rd January 1969. The remaining ship of the series was taken over by Australian National Line as part of the ACTA/ANL partnership and was completed as Australian Endeavour following her launching as Act 3 on 16th April 1969.
The OCL ships were built by Howaldtswerke and Blohm and Voss in Hamburg, and through the later deliveries of the ACTA ships from Bremer Vulkan, the latter company was able to overcome some of the costly problems which the early OCL ships developed with vibration, gearing and with the steam turbines.
While the ships were being built there was steady progress in setting up the logistical systems. In the United Kingdom, OCL and ACT established, under the name Containerbases, depots throughout the country for the handling, packing and unpacking of containers.
The shareholding in this company was held 75.6 per cent OCL and 24.4 per cent under ACT.
Special contractual arrangements were made with British Rail for the transport of containers and the port of Tilbury (London) developed the handling facilities. In the nine years to 1975, ACTA spent 160 million pounds sterling on ships, containers, terminals, computers and other equipment.
Associated Container Transportation in London set up a subsidiary company called ACT Services (commonly abbreviated to ACTS) to handle transport, container control systems, research and development for the group to avoid individual lines’ duplicating their efforts.
ACT Services expanded rapidly and soon had a staff of seven hundred. Although each of the five ACT shareholders held twenty per cent of the shares in ACTS, the cost of work done was apportioned against the actual requirements of the individual line requesting the services.
In September 1973, to be closer to the Far East and South African services, ACTS moved from London to a large ten-storey building in Southampton (Richmond House). This company handled all the documentation systems for the new services, and ACTA developed the first fully computerised “through transport” Bill of Lading.
In the conventional trade to Australia, Bills of Lading would essentially cover the transport from ship’s hook on loading to delivery at port of discharge. Documents evolved for container services changed this to cover the use of the container from the original packing point, sometimes hundreds of miles inland from the port of loading, to delivery of the cargo in the container at the final destination, which could also be many miles from the actual port of discharge from the vessel. The “through transport” Bill of Lading became the standard system for the container services.
In Australia the various agencies of the three partners were combined into a separate company – Trans Ocean Containers Pty. Ltd. – in April 1966, and terminal facilities (under Trans Ocean Terminals) were planned in Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney with depot facilities (Freightbases) at the other main ports. An agency structure to market the service was later developed under the name of Acta Pty. Ltd. in April 1970.
Initially OCL and ACTA agreed to mount a joint service to Australia, although each group was developing its own systems and was marketing its own cargoes. The first cargo for the new service to Australia was accepted from 10th February 1969, and the first ship (Encounter Bay) sailed from Rotterdam on 6th March 1969 and arrived Fremantle on 28th March 1969.
She was closely followed by the Act 1 on 22nd March 1969. A labour dispute at Tilbury (London) prevented that port being used, and until May 1970 all cargo to and from the United Kingdom was transhipped over Antwerp at considerable cost to the two container consortia.
Between 1968 and 1971 OCL set up a subsidiary – Dolphin Line Ltd. – and ACTA the ACTANZ Line, to co-ordinate the residual conventional services in the Australian trade.
The European lines operating from Europe to Australia had also elected to follow the British Lines with containerisation and five further ships were built – one each for Hamburg-Amerika Line and Norddeutscher Lloyd (both German companies that merged their interests into Hapag Lloyd in 1970), Holland Australia Line (Netherlands, which became part of the Netherlands Shipping Union Group from 1970 and was renamed Nedlloyd Group in 1977), Messageries Maritimes (France) and Lloyd Triestino (Italy).
There was a steady build-up of ships coming into service from August 1969, and within a reasonably short period there were fourteen ships in the trade, with all lines co-operating in scheduling under the trade banner of Australia Europe Container Service (AECS), which came into effect on 1st September 1970.
Four ports were served in Europe (Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp and Bremerhaven with alternatives at Zeebrugge and Flushing).
Tilbury was the designated United Kingdom port.
The ships proceeded to Australia via the Suez Canal, calling at Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney with an additional loading call at Fremantle on the return voyage. In the early years of the service ACTA elected to also call regularly at Liverpool as well as Tilbury.
In the trade from Australia to the West Coast of North America, ACTA was invited to join a consortium of Swedish and Australian interests in a re-structured Pacific Australia Direct Line (PAD), which the Transatlantic Rederi A/B of Gothenburg had established in 1921.
The Australian partners were the Australian National Line, Elder Smith Pty. Ltd. of Sydney and Trans Austral Shipping Pty. Ltd. of Sydney – the Transatlantic Line agents.
The ships in the service were specially built roll on, roll off vessels designed to carry containers as well as heavy machinery and other bulky items characteristic of this trade.
The Swedish principals were devout exponents of the roll on, roll off system and provided the first ship Paralla, as well as a fifty per cent share of the second vessel (Allunga) with the Australian partners, Elder Smith and ANL, each holding twenty five per cent.
The ACTA vessel was launched as Dilkara on 6th May 1971 and arrived in Australia in December that year. She was registered to the ownership of Blue Star, Port and Ellerman Lines. She was managed by Ellermans, but seagoing personnel also came from Port Line.
As the partnership with the Australian National Line was developing, ACTA elected to establish a container service between Australia and New Zealand and the East Coast of North America. This was a service the partners had run with conventional tonnage since 1936 as the Montreal Australia and New Zealand Line (MANZ Line), although Port Line through its predecessor Tyser and Company, and Ellerman Lines through the Ellerman and Bucknall Steamship Company, had trade links on this route which they had commenced around the turn of the century.
Four further container ships were ordered from Bremer Vulkan, slightly smaller than the European trade vessels and with a “break bulk” cargo hold right forward served by a 40-ton deck crane to handle bulky items and other non-containerisable cargo.
ANL was invited to take over one of the ships. New Zealand Shipping Company, a P&O subsidiary, was also a partner in the MANZ Line service although they had withdrawn from active participation from March 1966. In January 1969 they had initiated a “non-conference” service from Australia to ports on the East Coast of the United States, and through the OCL influence within P&O, decided to participate in the proposed new container service.
They also ordered a ship from Bremer Vulkan, to be named Chesapeake Bay. The ACTA/ANL partners were very much in control, and it was clear OCL would have a fairly minor and restricted role with their one ship. In April 1971 they agreed to withdraw their participation, subject to ACTA giving an undertaking that they would not exercise the “rights” obtained from the Atlas Line foray into the Australia/Japan trade.
The new service was marketed under the name of PACE Line (Pacific America Container Express) and the keel of the first ship was laid on 30th June 1970.
She was launched as Act 3 on 26th February 1971. Rudolph A. Oetker, a German industrialist who had acquired the remnants of the former Hamburg Sud group after the Second World War, had ordered three container ships for his Columbus Line subsidiary operating a similar service to that proposed by ACTA/ANL.
Their first vessel, Columbus New Zealand, was the first cellular container vessel to work New Zealand ports, and she sailed from Port Chalmers on 25th June 1971 for North America.
The PACE Line Act 3 arrived in Australia in early August 1971 and in Wellington on 16th August. There she lay at anchor for twelve days while an industrial agreement for the working of the ship was hammered out. She finally sailed from Wellington on 30th August 1971 direct for America, abandoning a call at Auckland to ensure she reached her discharge ports before the projected commencement of a strike by Atlantic Coast longshoremen.
Act 3 was followed by Act 4, launched on 11th May 1971, and the third ship, intended to be the Chesapeake Bay under OCL, went into the water as Act 5 and was initially placed in the Europe/Australia service.
The fourth vessel, launched on 29th March 1972 as Australian Exporter, was the Australian National Line contribution to the service. Ports of call in America were St. John, Boston, New York and Norfolk, and the ships sailed to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, then crossed to Wellington and Auckland. Philadelphia was added as a port of call in 1972 and soon became the principal cargo port on that coast.
The South Island port of Port Chalmers was added as a regular call from 1977.
In the United States other ports were used over the years, but by 1991 the service was rationalised on Philadelphia, Norfolk, Jacksonville and Houston. The PACE Line ships originally had capacity for 556 insulated containers and 710 general boxes, but due to demand for refrigerated space the vessels had this capacity increased by 102 boxes to 658 containers in 1975. Apart from the cold air systems in the holds, additional refrigerated cargo could be handled by the use of “clip on” refrigerating units attached to port hole boxes for on deck stowage.
The final vessel in the series, laid down as Act 5, was delivered on 22nd December 1972 as the Act 6 and she differed from the others in that she had no “break bulk” hold. On entering service Act 6 displaced Act 5 in the service between United Kingdom/Europe/Australia and New Zealand.
While the the ACTA partners were developing the container services to and from United Kingdom and Europe as well as North America, Ben Line moved to containerise their Far East trades, Ellermans and T. & J. Harrison teamed up to form the Ellerman Harrison Container Line to South Africa, and finally Harrison’s worked with other consortia towards containerising their services to the West Indies.
Each of these companies retained their own names for the new container services and applied their traditional names to the ships they built for them. The ACT naming system and the ACT funnel motif and house flag appeared only on the ships under ACTA control.
With all the planning for the containerisation of the Australia/United Kingdom trade, New Zealand cargoes for Great Britain and Europe were still very much in control of the individual British shipping lines – Shaw Savill and Albion Company, New Zealand Shipping Company, Port Line and Blue Star Line.
Under pressure from the various New Zealand Producer Boards and other shippers to reduce the ever-spiraling freight charges, the lines commissioned a report on cargo and container handling.
Issued in May 1967 as the Molyneux report after the name of the chairman of the investigating group, it proposed a four-ship partial container service with a sixteen-day frequency capable of carrying some eighty per cent of imports and fifty per cent of exports, supplemented by a fleet of thirty two conventional vessels.
The Producer Boards, with whom the lines had contractual arrangements, accepted the report, and four ships were ordered from Swan Hunter Shipbuilders at Newcastle with the delivery of the first in October 1973.
The New Zealand Transport Commission, in conjunction with the Metra Consulting Group of London, also produced a report on the containerisation of the New Zealand/United Kingdom trade. It favoured a fleet of four ships carrying 1,400/1,500 containers at a speed of 22 to 23 knots between Auckland and Wellington and London.
They would lift sixty six per cent of the northbound traffic and eighty one per cent of the import cargoes, while a fleet of thirty one conventional vessels would be needed to handle the balance of the trade. The conclusions were similar to those of the Cargo and Container Handling Report prepared by the four British shipping lines some two years earlier.
The cost of each ship was projected at eleven million pounds sterling but by early 1971 this had risen to over twenty million pounds per vessel.
Two of the partners – Furness Withy and Co. (Shaw Savill and Albion) and Cunard (Port Line) – could not afford to proceed, and with scant warning to New Zealand interests the British Lines in May 1971 suddenly cancelled the orders.
The arrogance with which the decision was taken and conveyed to New Zealand badly damaged the long‑standing relationships between the various Producer Boards and the Lines. New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon described it as “One of the most dismally inept displays of poor public relations in recent times. The decision, he said, could be the beginning of the end of the British dominance of shipping to and from New Zealand.” He further went on to say “The lesson which the shipowners must learn is that you cannot retain a monopoly if you insist on loading all the costs of your inefficiency and poor British industrial relations on the New Zealand producer.”
New Zealand shippers, well aware of the advantages being achieved in the Australian trade with faster transit times and more efficient deliveries through container shipping, were clearly concerned at the prospect of the labour-intensive cargo-handling methods continuing ad infinitum.
A year later it was ACTA/ANL who saw the potential to gain an advantage over OCL by announcing that they would introduce a partial New Zealand container service. They also signaled their withdrawal from the Australia Europe Container Service (AECS) consortium from 1st November 1971, and confirmed their intention to mount an independent container service to Australia and New Zealand from September 1972.
The ships to be employed would be the Act 1, Act 2, Australian Endeavour and Act 5, seconded from the American PACE Line service. They would load at Liverpool and Tilbury, proceed to Melbourne and Sydney and then on to Wellington and Auckland, returning home via the Panama Canal. A seventeen-day frequency was planned on a sixty seven-day round voyage. Australian Endeavour made the inaugural voyage of the Independent Service in September 1972.
The first of the four large ships ordered for the New Zealand trade in implementation of the Molyneux report was so far advanced in construction at the time of the order cancellation that it was economically advantageous to proceed with her completion.
Owned by P&O and named Remuera, she was completed in December 1973.
The other lines spent a very long period in negotiations with the shipbuilder over the cancellation of the orders and compensation for the cost of steel already ordered for the other three vessels.
As Remuera had a container capacity of 1,813, of which 1,131 were slots for refrigerated cargo, she was really only suitable for employment in the New Zealand trade.
ACTA/ANL took her on charter and were thus able to improve the sailing frequency of their service to a sailing every fourteen days. In return, P&O chartered container slots from ACTA/ANL for New Zealand cargoes in Remuera and the other four ships employed in the Independent Service.
When built, Remuera had the largest refrigerated capacity of any ship in the world, and at 42,007 tons gross and of dimensions to the maximum the Panama Canal would allow, was the largest container ship to have visited New Zealand when she arrived in February 1974.
The ACTA/ANL Independent Service was a great success and enabled New Zealand to secure a container service to Europe earlier than would have been the case had the cancelled four-ship service actually commenced.
However, the overall services to Australia and North America had their ups and downs. In 1970 bunker fuel prices rose by over fifty per cent and this rise was disastrous for the fuel-guzzling turbine steamers.
Growing inflation worldwide also pushed up operating costs, and a further rise in bunker prices during 1974 did nothing to convince the shippers that container shipping was the way of the future, with reduced freight rates and better service.
The early 1970s also saw a thirty five per cent increase in the volume of imports to Australia, and both OCL and ACTA/ANL had difficulty locating suitable surplus container ships to charter to supplement their existing services.
Invariably there were long delays in accommodating the demands of shippers. ACTA/ANL chartered twenty two additional sailings in 1973 and an even greater number in 1974.
The two groups also had to continue their financial outlay to fully containerise the Australian and New Zealand trades. In July 1974 ACTA/ANL ordered two further ships from Bremer Vulkan with delivery in February and June 1977.
In order to achieve some volume advantage, OCL ordered two similar ships from the same yard, with the newly-formed Shipping Corporation of New Zealand Limited taking ownership of a fifth ship in the series. These vessels had capacity for around two thousand containers and were the largest ships ever built for the Conference service to Australia or New Zealand.
The sobering effects of the oil shocks of the early 1970s were recognised, with the ships being propelled by slow-speed Sulzer diesel engines. The refrigerated capacity of each of the ACTA/ANL ships was 993 slots, while the other three vessels could each carry 1,228 reefer containers. Increased numbers of refrigerated tower units (for holding the cargo in insulated containers at the correct carriage temperature) were installed at the main terminal ports to cater for the additional traffic.
The first of the “big five”, Australian Venture, entered service in March 1977, followed by Act 7 four months later, and as the new ships were introduced an improved service frequency was achieved.
As ACTA/ANL now had the capacity to cover the New Zealand trade with its own ships, Remuera, which had been chartered since 1974, was returned to OCL, becoming the Remuera Bay, thus allowing OCL to expand their individual presence.
Trade scheduling came under the control of a liner grouping called ANZECS (Australia/New Zealand/Europe Container Service) which comprised P&O, the Continental Lines under the banner of Seabridge, and the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand. ANZECS was based in London, under the control of a retired Admiral who adopted a very strict scheduling policy which each individual line was expected to adhere to for the benefit of the total trade. ACTA/ANL sailings were closely linked to the ANZECS programme, but still retained the final say in their own scheduling until 1984.
In order to rationalise the sailings in a fourteen-ship service, four of the vessels operated solely on a Europe/Australia/Europe service, while a further four went out to New Zealand via the Panama Canal, returning to Europe via Australia and Mediterranean ports.
The remaining six large refrigerated ships came out to Australia via Suez and then from New Zealand returned to Europe via the Panama Canal. The service made about fifty calls annually to Tilbury, Rotterdam and Hamburg, and twenty five visits to the ports of Flushing, Zeebrugge, Bremerhaven, Fos and Genoa.
Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney remained the Australian port calls, with calls at the ports of Lyttelton and Port Chalmers being added to Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand.
Reefer equipment was set up in Piraeus, and that port became a regular port of call in the Mediterranean service from September 1979.
New Zealand had long prepared itself for the new service. A company named Associated Container Transportation (N.Z.) Ltd. had been established in 1969.
The conventional service agency structure had also been merged in that year to form Blue Star Port Lines (Management) Ltd., and from 1976 the container and remaining conventional interests were merged into Blueport ACT (N.Z.) Ltd., eventually being renamed New Zealand Line Ltd. on 1st October 1990, eighteen months after the acquisition by ACTNZ of The Shipping Corporation of New Zealand Ltd. (see below).
The terminals at Auckland, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers were established and managed by the respective Harbour Boards in those ports, but in Wellington the shipping company users owned the facility, and although the majority share of fiftyone per cent was held by The Shipping Corporation of New Zealand from 1st October 1975, ACTNZ held a small shareholding in the company, called Container Terminals Limited. This, of course, rose to a majority holding following the acquisition of the Shipping Corporation in 1989.
Container capacities of the vessels were deceptive. When the Act 1 class was ordered a nominal TEU capacity of 1,130 was quoted, but within a short time the vessels were carrying 1,404, of which 950 were general with space for 454 refrigerated containers (the reefer capacity was increased from 326 to 454 in 1973).
The PACE Line vessels were designated 1,067 TEU and the Australian Venture and Act 7 1,783 TEU when first ordered, but all were enhanced through experience in the trades; the ratio of weight and measurement cargoes was another factor, as well as structural alterations.
Originally the PACE Line ships had no container capacity abaft the bridge, but the after deck was later cleared to allow the carriage of twenty six empty containers stowed four high.
When the ships were sold in 1991, Lloyd’s Register recorded Act 1 with a capacity of 1,414 containers, Act 3 at 1,472 TEU and Act 7 at 2,158 TEU.
With an ACTA fleet now of seven vessels, crewing was provided by the individual partners, with Port Line personnel on Acts 2, 3, and 6 and Blue Star Line providing crews for Acts 1, 4, 5 and 7, although after Cunard Line acquired the Ellerman interests in 1987, Act 4 came under Ellerman control with the crew coming from Denholm Ship Management, the management company employed by Ellermans.
With the introduction of the five large refrigerated vessels, some of the ships of the Continental Lines within the ANZECS consortium were withdrawn. The scheduling took into account the imbalance of cargoes between Australia and New Zealand.
There was a greater volume of imports into Australia than exports, whereas the position was reversed in New Zealand, so that combining the service between the two countries enabled a more balanced space utilisation to be achieved over the long ocean runs.
This situation resulted in the ships’ carrying large numbers of empty containers from Australia to New Zealand. An “accord” between the maritime unions of both countries with support from waterfront unions prevented the carriage of trans-Tasman cargoes by ships other than those manned by Australian and New Zealand crews.
Whilst this arbitrary decision by the unions had no legal status, their industrial strength was considerable and no shipping line was prepared to test the issue. As a result only the ANL ships and the New Zealand Pacific with a New Zealand crew carried trans-Tasman cargoes.
In late 1978 the container service moved to the new Northfleet Hope terminal, built downriver on the Thames to cater for the larger ships and greatly increased refrigerated volumes.
The terminal was built at a cost of twenty four million pounds sterling and was jointly owned by ACTA, OCL and the Port of London Authority. Although all the vessels in the trade called at this terminal, only OCL, ACTA and The Shipping Corporation of New Zealand had conference line “rights” to handle cargo to and from the United Kingdom.
The larger vessels also avoided the canal transits, which were costly and on occasions caused delays, by travelling out to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope and returning via Cape Horn.
With each oil crisis in the Middle East and the Iran-Iraq war, both canals were forced to handle much more traffic, and delays at the Panama Canal were sometimes measured in days, rather than hours.
Although there was early concern about the dangers of icebergs and poor weather in the southern ocean on the passage around Cape Horn, it was found in practice that this was not a problem. Radar and satellite navigation overcame difficulties which could have arisen from the many overcast days on the passages, and as the service was almost weekly the ice reports did not vary greatly between sailings.
When bunker costs again rose in 1978, ACTA/ANL looked closely at ways to lower their operating costs, and the first action involved reducing routine speeds by 3 knots, which saved about 30 tons of fuel a day on the larger ships.
When the ships were routinely dry docked their hulls were painted with high performance epoxy resin oblative (self-polishing) paints which kept the hulls clean and ensured there was no slowing down due to weed growth and the like.
Exercises were also done on the merits or otherwise of re-engining the steamer fleet with slow-speed diesels. It was estimated the payback of the capital outlay would not occur for eight years, so it was decided to re-gear the existing steamers and replace the propellers. Instead of burning 115 tons of fuel per day for 21.5 knots, the vessels would burn 85 tons per day for a speed of 18.5 knots and the costs of this operation would result in a payback within two years.
OCL elected to re-engine three of their early ships, and in retrospect re-engining Act 1 and Act 2 may well have been justified, considering they were still in service seventeen years after the re-engining proposal was considered.
From the early 1980s there was increased competition in most trades and the conference groupings had to achieve economies from within, as shippers were reluctant to pay increased freight charges.
From May 1982 there was closer rationalisation of scheduling between the ANZECS group and ACTA/ANL with the objective of preventing any vessels sailing deep sea with empty cells.
In 1984 full integration of scheduling was introduced between the two groups.
The most significant competitor for ACTA was the ABC Container Line, owned by Belgian entrepreneur Tsvi Rosenfeld. His ships were essentially bulk carriers employed on a fifteen-year, 300,000-ton ilmenite sand contract from Geraldton in West Australia to Gulfport, Mississippi.
Rosenfeld saw the income potential of “full and down” cargoes by supplementing the 10,000- to 20,000-ton parcels of sand with containers on deck and also in the open holds of his bulk carriers. His service from Europe to Australia and then from Australia to the U.S. Gulf and back to Europe was patterned on the ACTA/ANL and PACE services, and with freight rates some ten to fifteen per cent below those charged by the conferences, his ships were reasonably well supported.
Also at this time there was great pressure on freight rates from non-conference operators coming into the trade. In addition to ABC, Polish Ocean Lines, Balt Australia Line, Eagle Container Line, and Zim Israel were also active in the Australian trade, and wool rates from Australia to Europe dropped from US$2,800 per container to US$1,456.
Import cargoes also fell, with ACTA/ANL loadings only seventy to seventy five per cent of capacity.
For six months from September 1983 Act 1 was withdrawn from service and laid up at Burnie, while Act 2 was chartered out from September 1983 to March 1984.
Some of the other ships had shorter periods of lay-up. In New Zealand ANZECS and ACTA/ANL agreed in 1982 to have a slot-sharing arrangement with Scancarriers, the Scandinavian group created in 1970 comprising Wilh Wilhelmsen, Oslo, East Asiatic Company of Copenhagen and Transatlantic Rederi, Gothenburg, who were operating large roll on, roll off vessels in the trade between Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
A somewhat similar arrangement applied between the German carrier Hamburg Sud and ACTA/ANL from 1979. Whilst this company had Conference “rights”, it was essentially only a slot charter arrangement, although Hamburg Sud did mount one sailing a year for a time in the early 1980s.
In 1984 the ANZECS/ACTA/ANL grouping improved their Mediterranean service by utilising six ships on a seventy-day round voyage cycle from Australian ports, Auckland, Wellington and Port Chalmers, back via Melbourne and Fremantle (occasionally Burnie or Adelaide) to Jeddah, Piraeus, Genoa (later Livorno and then La Spezia in place of Genoa), Fos and Barcelona and returning directly to Australia rather than extending to ports in northern Europe.
The main European direct sailings were integrated into weekly scheduling.
In the early days of the PACE Line service, the lines in the trade – ACTA/ANL, Columbus, Farrell Line and non-conference carrier Attlantrafik – had an orderly scheduling, but by the mid-1980’s competition was ever-increasing. ABC Container Line had shown their hand with reduced freight rates from 1978, and after battling the New Zealand Producer Boards for a share of the meat and wool cargoes the line was approved by the N.Z. Wool Board as a carrier from October 1982, and the following year the N.Z. Meat Producers’ Board gave their approval for meat cargoes.
The Australian Meat Board had authorised ABC as a carrier of Australian meat from 1981. In addition to this erosion of “protected” northbound cargoes, a number of other lines, such as Wilh Wilhelmsen, Ocean Star Container Line/Contship and Euro Line, put their ships, coming to Australia and New Zealand from Europe, into ports on the East Coast of North America to lift southbound cargoes.
From the late 1980s there was also stronger competition for East Coast cargoes from the ANZDL (Australian New Zealand Direct Line) land bridge handling cargoes through the West Coast ports of Oakland and Los Angeles for delivery to anywhere in the United States.
ANL decided to withdraw from PACE Line on 1st June 1985, and the loss of the Australian Exporter from the trade saw ACTA retain the four-ship service.
Prior to the ANL departure the company had developed the first of a series of relationships in joint scheduling with Columbus Line to improve space utilisation. Each ship carried containers of the other line and as a result the service offered, and fiercely marketed by the individual companies, was greatly improved.
The Australian partnership with PAD Line was also terminated, and the service became a joint one between Transatlantic and ACTA from 1985, but in October 1986 ACTA’s involvement was terminated altogether by mutual agreement.
The service was incurring heavy losses, mainly as a result of too many lines chasing too little cargo.
Transatlantic were keen to continue in the trade and to introduce new roll on, roll off tonnage, while ACTA were anxious to retain a presence and made overtures to Blue Star Line with a view to combining with their New Zealand West Coast of North America service.
The proposal was rejected by Blue Star, and ACTA subsequently developed a lift on, lift off service from Australia to the West Coast under the name of PACE WEST, using chartered tonnage under the names Act 9 to Act 12 (In July 1991 PACE WEST and Columbus Line agreed to rationalise their West Coast North America services, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Act 12).
ANL had become established on most of the major liner trades in and out of Australia and the management felt their ambitions were being stifled by the tight arrangements with ACTA. Their ACTA/ANL partnership was divided into a seventy/thirty per cent profit pool.
ANL held fifteen per cent of the Australia/U.K./Europe trade but no entitlements as far as cargo from New Zealand was concerned.
They had applied to join the New Zealand conference in 1987 but the application was declined. They withdrew from the ACTA/ANL partnership on 30th June 1987 but remained within the ANZECS group.
To maintain their space entitlements prior to this withdrawal, ACTA had chartered the large Ellerman Harrison Container Line vessel City of Durban, which had been employed on the Europe-South Africa service.
Renamed Act 8, she was the largest vessel ever to be utilised by ACTA and had a TEU capacity of 2,450.
From the mid-1980’s the ACTA partners had to constantly evaluate their long term future in the business, as it was clear that the financial returns then being obtained would be insufficient to provide capital for replacement tonnage.
A decision was taken to re-engine the four PACE trade vessels, and the ships were progressively converted in the IHI (Ishikawa-Jima-Harima) yards at Yokohama and Nagoya with slow-speed diesels. The Stal Laval steam turbines of 32,000 shaft horse power, able to drive the vessels at 22.5 knots, were replaced by IHI/Sulzer diesel engines which operated at 88 revolutions per minute for a service speed of 17.5 knots.
Bunker prices had increased dramatically since the original decision to power the early ships with steam turbine propulsion. On an index cost of 100 in 1973, they had risen to 600 by 1979 and by 1990 the index was on 2,200. During the engine conversions, high-quality passenger accommodation was installed for up to eleven passengers. Act 7 was also converted to carry eight passengers and despite the lack of time in port and the limited range of port calls offered by the service, the accommodation was regularly used. A few berths were also offered in Act 1 and Act 2.
P&O had announced in April 1986 that they had succeeded in buying out the remaining partners in OCL effective from 28th May.
When Overseas Containers was formed each shareholder held twenty five per cent of the shares, but the holdings of each party were realigned as OCL entered new trades.
By the time the Australian, Far East and South African services had been developed, the shareholdings of the individual companies were Ocean Transport 33.9 per cent, P&O 30.7 per cent, British and Commonwealth 19.4 per cent and Furness Withy 16.0 per cent.
Following the C.Y. Tung takeover of the Furness Withy Group in 1980 the shareholding percentages became Ocean Transport 40.49, P&O 36.70, and British and Commonwealth 22.81.
As a result of the P&O takeover, the name Overseas Containers Limited (OCL) was dropped from 1st January 1987 when the company, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of P&O, was renamed P&O Containers Ltd. (P&OCL).
ACTA was still very much “locked in” to the philosophies of its individual partners, each with its own agenda on the longer-term future of their shipping investments.
The company was also very much reliant on its trade partners. In order to provide a realistic service coverage attractive to shippers in terms of performance, port coverage and frequency of sailings, it needed the space-sharing agreements with P&O in the UK/Europe trades and Columbus Line in the PACE service to North America.
A move to gain some benefit from economy of scale was taken when ACT (N.Z.) Limited, the wholly-owned subsidiary of ACTA, succeeded in acquiring The Shipping Corporation of New Zealand Ltd. on 3rd April 1989. The New Zealand Government was anxious to sell the line after a succession of losses, and after lengthy negotiations ACTNZ was successful with a bid of NZ$35-40,000,000 subject to contingencies.
The final price actually paid was $33,500,000, and it reflected the poor returns being gained from international container shipping.
This acquisition gave ACTA the former New Zealand Line trade shares to United Kingdom, Europe, Red Sea, Japan, Korea and Australia, as well as the ships New Zealand Pacific and New Zealand Mariner. These trade share gains were made with only a modest increase in staffing.
The purchase also saw Blueport ACT (N.Z.) Ltd. in Wellington made responsible for the Cunard Ellerman management contract for the provision of New Zealand crews for the New Zealand Pacific and New Zealand Mariner as well as a ship management contract for the Tarihiko – a coastal LPG tanker operating between New Plymouth, Dunedin, Lyttelton and Manukau.
The ACTA partners continued to seek further economies, and in early 1991 they proposed to transfer the registry of the PACE Line ships to Nassau, Bahamas and to use Filipino crews instead of the mixture of British and West Indian seafarers they were employing at that time.
Some schedule disruptions took place arising from industrial stoppages over this action, but the change was duly implemented throughout 1991, leaving only a British Master and Chief Engineer on each ship which now had an otherwise full Filipino crew.
ACTA had demonstrated since its inception that its personnel had performed exceptionally well in the development of containerisation, particularly in respect to specialist knowledge and skill in the transport of refrigerated cargoes.
The extent of the involvement with refrigerated cargoes was shown in 1978 when ACTA became the first container operator to accept delivery of 5,000 reefer containers from a single manufacturer.
Some of their technical people were quite justifiably regarded as leaders in their field. But despite this degree of enthusiasm and high attainment at management level, ACTA’s future direction was still very much subject to the leadership provided by its three shareholders, all of whom had differing viewpoints and cultures.
Blue Star Line was the only dedicated shipowner amongst the three, and as a private company was probably content to accept a comparatively lower rate of return, consistent with tight control of costs and the knowledge that shipping was a cyclical business and over a longer term would provide satisfactory results. They had obviously proven this concept time and again over a long period.
The Ellerman Lines, formerly also privately owned, had been sold in 1983 to hotelier M.F. North Plc, a group controlled by D.R. and F.H. Barclay.
Two years later, on 13th December 1985, the Barclay brothers accepted an offer of a management buy-out of the shipping interests from Endobrand Ltd., a company comprising the executive directors of Ellermans and a consortium of institutional investors led by Charterhouse Developments Ltd.
All the Ellerman directors were involved, and they were keen to pay off their indebtedness promptly by maximising cash flows.
Apart from their container consortia involvements to the Far East, South Africa and their links with ACTA, they ran a fleet of smaller vessels in their short-sea services to European, Mediterranean and Middle East ports. Most of these ships were chartered, and as a result their ratio of capital commitment was not as high as that of Blue Star Line or Cunard.
They had also contracted out their ship management requirements.
Their objective was clearly to reduce operating costs and create efficiencies which would provide the best financial return. It was virtually impossible to secure additional income from freight increases because of the competition prevailing on all trades. They were very successful with this management style.
Cunard, as a subsidiary of the publicly-listed company Trafalgar House Investments Limited, was directed more at business which would create a strong investment group with investors seeing a growth potential through a strengthening share price and the gains to be made from share trading rather than dividends.
Since they acquired Cunard in 1971 the results from cargo shipping had been poor, and this was accentuated through the need for the considerable capital investment arising from the change from conventional to container shipping.
Being locked in to ACTA in what might be termed a partnership arrangement gave them no prospect of expansion, and likewise any further growth of ACTA could only be achieved through an even greater capital investment, or from the benefit of rationalisation with another company in the same trades.
Any prospect of a better financial return on the existing level of investment was being continually eroded as more and more “outsiders” kept trying their hand in the various trades, always at freight rates below the Conference Lines’ tariffs.
Trafalgar House had actually made a bid for P&O itself in 1983 but an eight-month delay in getting approval from the United Kingdom Monopolies and Mergers Commission saw it lose interest, as after that time it was evident a greatly-increased offer would be needed if the bid was to succeed.
In the submissions made by Cunard at that time it was stated that “Deep sea cargo and consortia interests are not high on the list of priorities” – a statement that reinforced the perception that Trafalgar House was only interested in shipping as an investment, rather than as long-term shipowners.
It was also stated that further rationalisation of the container trades was desirable and “The acquisition of the P&O Group could be the catalyst for opening up discussions with the parties concerned” – a statement that became a reality in reverse a few years later!
After nearly twenty years of constantly refining and restructuring their cargo shipping interests through Port Line to ACTA, Trafalgar House realised it would have to improve the returns from shipping if this segment was to be retained as a unit of the group.
It saw potential in securing the Ellerman share of ACTA because the 57.5 per cent stake it would then possess would place the company in a much stronger position to either on sell or to have greater influence in any future investment plans.
The sudden announcement on 30th June 1987 that Trafalgar House had acquired the fifteen per cent Ellerman share in ACTA for 24.1 million pounds sterling took the industry by surprise, more so in that Cunard had recognised the management skills and success the Ellerman team had demonstrated following their buy-out of the company from Barclays in 1985.
This team virtually took over the Cunard-Ellerman management from existing senior Cunard managers, and were probably likened to being “investment managers” as distinct from being solely the managers of a shipping company.
In 1991 Trafalgar House reported a pre-tax profit which was 42 per cent below that of the previous year, and the Chief Executive for Cunard-Ellerman, as the cargo shipping division was named, said the company had achieved an operating profit but not an adequate return on the assets employed.
The returns for the following six months, to March 1991, showed an even more dismal picture, with the group profit 75 per cent lower than the 1989/90 result.
A month later, reports indicated that Cunard-Ellerman cargo interests were up for sale, and that P&O was a likely bidder.
On 1st July 1991 P&O and Trafalgar House confirmed that discussions were taking place concerning the acquisition of certain Ellerman cargo interests.
It was formally announced on 18th July that P&O had made the purchase for 62.5 million pounds sterling. Cunard had initially discussed a possible sale with Blue Star Line, but the complexities of dealing with all the Ellerman side trades had no interest for the latter.
They were anxious to retain their involvement in the PACE Line service, particularly in that they were operating a similar service from New Zealand to the West Coast of North America.
A minority role within the Australia/New Zealand/European trade would be something they would have little control over, and only a major player could gain an economy of scale benefit making for better financial returns.
The takeover of Cunard-Ellerman, effective from 30th September 1991 and operationally on 11th October, resulted in a major re‑organisation of United Kingdom shipping. P&O onsold the ACTA North American services to Blue Star Line and passed the Cunard-Ellerman interests in the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and East Africa to Andrew Weir Shipping Ltd., operators of The Bank Line Ltd., United Baltic Corporation Ltd. and MacAndrew and Co. Ltd.
Some of the successful Cunard-Ellerman management team moved to Andrew Weir Shipping to run the new services. The vessels Act 1, Act 2, and Act 7, along with the New Zealand Pacific and Marin (the former New Zealand Mariner, then operating out of Singapore under charter) came into the P&O fleet, while the four American-trade ships – Acts 3 to 6 – were transferred to Blue Star Line on 11th October 1991.
At the time of the takeover the PACE WEST service was about to take over Columbus Louisiana and operate her as the second Act 9 under the rationalisation agreement between Columbus and ACTA. Blue Star Line subsequently took over this charter, and the vessel was renamed Oregon Star on 23rd October 1991.
Although the parent company, Associated Container Transportation Ltd. (ACT) was not directly part of the ACTA takeover by P&O, this action spelt its death knell, as well as that of its United Kingdom subsidiary, ACT Services in Southampton.
Of the other partners forming ACT in 1966, Wm. Thomson and Company of Edinburgh had formed Ben Line Containers in March 1970 to containerise their Far East trades within TRIO, a consortium of British, German and Japanese shipping companies.
Instead of adopting a name linked with ACT, they decided Ben Line was a more well-known and effective marketing name, and their three ships, each capable of carrying 3,032 TEU, were named Benalder, Benavon and City of Edinburgh.
The shareholding in Ben Line Containers was eighty per cent Wm. Thomson and twenty per cent Ellermans, reflecting their individual conventional trade shares.
Ben Line Containers used ACT Services in the United Kingdom for technical assistance, documentation and container control systems, in a role similar to that which they performed for ACTA.
The interests of Ellermans and T. & J. Harrison Ltd. in the South Africa trades were incorporated in Ellerman Harrison Container Line in 1974, with Ellermans holding sixtyfive per cent and Harrisons thirty five per cent.
This company operated within a grouping known as South Africa Europe Container Services (SAECS), and contributed the 2,450 TEU vessel City of Durban. It used the services of ACT Services in a manner similar to that of Ben Line Containers. T. & J. Harrison also had traditional services from the United Kingdom to the West Indies, and this trade was containerised with another consortium of lines known as the Caribbean Overseas Lines (CAROL), formed in 1973, with Harrisons providing tonnage, although their requirements from ACT Services for this trade were minimal.
The CAROL service commenced in December 1976, and Harrisons had their vessels Astronomer and Adviser in service the following year. Of all the partners in ACT, Harrisons were the least involved in group matters, and maintained a determination to concern themselves solely with their own affairs.
The acquisition of ACTA saw P&O gain the Ellerman share of the South African trade and the Ellerman twenty per cent share in Ben Line Containers.
Ben Line had little option but to buy this back, as by then the company was in negotiation with a potential new partner – East Asiatic Company of Copenhagen – and from 1st January 1992 Ben Line Containers and East Asiatic Company merged to form EAC-Ben Container Services.
With the Ellerman interest gone, City of Edinburgh was renamed Benarty.
The venture was short-lived, as six months later, following massive losses, Ben Line sold its thirtyfour per cent interest in EAC-Ben Line to the East Asiatic Company and terminated their 113‑year history of involvement in shipping services from United Kingdom and Europe to the Far East.
Harrison Line was not affected by the P&O incursion and continued to manage its own services as a slot charterer to South Africa, retaining the thirty five per cent interest in City of Durban and with its own tonnage to the West Indies and adjacent areas.
Not being a significant user of ACT Services, there was no effect when this company disappeared shortly after P&O had integrated its functions into their own systems and trades.
P&O thus became the dominant player in the Australia/New Zealand/Europe trade, and tightened up conference control by bringing within its aegis long-time “outsider” Contship Container Line in a three-year agreement commencing from 1st January 1994.
The ANZECS name was dropped and the service became known as P&O/Contship.
ANL, Hapag-Lloyd, Hamburg Sud, Lloyd Triestino and Wilh Wilhelmsen remained in this grouping as slot charterers, with only P&O and Contship providing the ships except for ANL’s Australian Venture (She remained in this service with a modest New Zealand conference share being gained, but both the Australian and New Zealand trade shares were abandoned on 1st January 1996 and the vessel was sold with delivery mid-year, due to the virtual insolvency of ANL and the desire of the Australian Government to sell the line).
The former European-trade ACTA ships were renamed and retained in the trade. Act 1 was renamed Discovery Bay, Act 2 Moreton Bay, and Act 7 became Palliser Bay.
New Zealand Pacific continued with her New Zealand name and remained painted in the former Shipping Corporation of New Zealand livery.
P&O also retained the ownership of the Marin.
In the East and West Coast North America trades, Blue Star Line gradually dropped the use of the PACE Line name and marketed the services solely as Blue Star Line trades, working even more closely with Columbus in the rationalising of schedules. Acts 3 to 6 were progressively renamed America Star (25/11/1991), Melbourne Star (13/1/1992), Sydney Star (15/12/1991) and Queensland Star (31/1/1992) respectively. ACTA’s reefer container stocks at the time of the sale of the Trafalgar House interests to P&O included 13,353 porthole containers, 767 integral units and 2,768 clip-on units, plus general cargo and leased containers. These were divided between P&O and Blue Star Line as they became available in accordance with the sale agreements.
As a by-play of the negotiations in London, Blue Star Line appointed P&O in Australia as their agents for the two North American services, but in New Zealand Blue Star set up their own offices in the main ports, using former New Zealand Line Ltd. staff.
Cunard officers on ACTA vessels joined the P&O ship management company – Container Fleets Ltd. – while Blue Star retained their own Masters and Chief Engineers on the four American-trade ships along with their Filipino crews.
Over the five years following the acquisition of ACTA, P&O had been vulnerable to the same competitive pressures which Blue Star Line had encountered and on 9th September 1996 it announced a merger of the container fleet with ailing Nedlloyd Lines, to form P&O Nedlloyd Container Lines. Claimed to have the largest container carrying capacity in the world at that time, it was hoped the resultant economies of merging the joint fleets would slash costs and create better profits. The new company commenced operations from 1st January 1997.
By the end of 1997, Blue Star Line could see no long-term viability for their container services and the elderly ships they employed.
Competition on all trades was increasing, not only with new direct services, but through other lines relaying cargoes through “hub” ports like Singapore.
The cost of building new tonnage was prohibitive. The Vestey Group decided to offer their liner services for sale, and despite strong interest from their North American trade joint service partner, Columbus Line, through their parent company Hamburg-Sud, and from CP Ships which had grown out of Canadian Pacific Steamships, P&O Nedlloyd won the day.
Despite the strength of the Columbus Line bid, it was almost as though P&O had exercised an option gained in 1991! At that time they had been given the agency in Australia for the Blue Star Line North American services, and would probably have secured the New Zealand agency as well, had it not been more cost effective for Blue Star Line to employ their share of the ACTA staff, rather than pay redundancy. From 1st October 1997, when Blue Star Line shifted their New Zealand head office from Wellington to Auckland, and closed all their New Zealand branches and terminated agencies, they also employed P&O Nedlloyd to handle their ship agency work at other New Zealand ports of call.
The sale of Blue Star to P&O Nedlloyd became effective from 2nd April 1998, but rather than integrating the Blue Star Line American services and ships into their own trades, P&O Nedlloyd decided to retain the distinctive Blue Star Line identity and acquired the rights to the funnel markings and house flag.
The former ACTA ships continued to operate under their Blue Star Line names and the services are marketed as Blue Star Line. The Blue Star Line Ship Management division in London was retained in its entirety, thus giving P&O Nedlloyd a yardstick for evaluating the costs of operating their own combined fleet, managed from Rotterdam.
P&O, albeit by now P&O Nedlloyd, had finally gained all the remnants of the former ACTA services.
Today the world of ACT and ACTA is but a memory for the many former staff who were employed by the group over the years. A proud, efficient company, as were the elements from which it evolved, its structure inhibited growth, and the fierce competition in container shipping which developed from the 1980s prevented its consolidation or expansion. The 1991 takeover by P&O and that company’s subsequent integration with Nedlloyd Lines were all designed to provide operational cost savings and increase market share under very competitive trading conditions.
There is little doubt that this pattern of takeovers will continue worldwide, with the larger shipping companies seeking to devour the smaller in the search for the ultimate economy of scale.
The author would like to thank Nigel J. Kirby of Lyttelton and Captain I.B. Owen of Wellington for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
Associated Container Transportation (Australia) Ltd. (Acta) and Australian National Line (Anl) vessels employed on Acta services.
Year Built In Fleet
Builders G.R.T. From To History
s.s. Act 1
1969 by Bremer Vulkan,
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1969-1991). (Blue Star Line, Mgrs.) Sold P&O Containers Ltd., London 1991 and renamed Discovery Bay (GBR) 1992-98. Ownership registered to P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., London 1997-98. Arrived Singapore 12/8/1998 with engine trouble. Sold Indian shipbreakers, and renamed Discovery (VCT) for delivery voyage, and arrived Alang for demolition 7/9/1998.
s.s. Act 2
1969 by Bremer Vulkan,
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1969-1991). (Cunard Line, Mgrs. 1969-87, Cunard Ellerman 1987-91). (Renamed Los Angeles (GBR) for charter to Johnson ScanStar Line 9/1983-3/1984). Sold P&O Containers Ltd. 1991 and renamed Moreton Bay (GBR)1991-98. Ownership registered P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., London 1997-98. Sold Indian shipbreakers and arrived Alang for demolition 28/5/1998.
s.s. Australian Endeavour
1969 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack. Laid down for ACTA and launched as Act 3. Sold on stocks to Australian Coastal Shipping Commission, Melbourne and completed as Australian Endeavour (AUS).
Ownership registered to Australian Coastal Shipping Commission, Melbourne 1969-1974 then Australian Shipping Commission (Australian National Line), Melbourne 1974-1985. Sold Taiwan shipbreakers and arrived Kaohsiung for demolition 10/6/1985.
1971 by Eriksbergs Mek.Verk.
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1971-1986). (Ellerman Line, Mgrs. 1971-86) (Registry GBR 1971-1985, IOM 1985-86.)
Sold Taiwan shipbreakers and arrived Kaohsiung for demolition 2/12/1986.
s.s. Act 3
1971 by Bremer Vulkan,
(Re-engined to motor vessel at
I.H.I., Nagoya 4/1987)
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1971-1991). (Cunard Line, Mgrs. 1971-87, Cunard Ellerman 1987-91). (Registry GBR 1971-1991, BHS 1991). Sold Blue Star PACE Ltd., London (Blue Star Ship Mgmt. Ltd., London, Mgrs.) 1991 and renamed America Star (BHS) 1991- . Registered ownership transferred to Blue Star (North America) Ltd., London 1993-98, Blue Star Marine Ltd., London 1998- (same Mgrs.). (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd. acquired Blue Star Line container services 1/5/1998).
s.s. Act 4
1971 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack
(Re-engined to motor vessel by I.H.I., Yokohama 2/1987)
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1971-1991). (Blue Star Line, Mgrs. 1971-1987, Ellerman Lines 1987, Cunard Ellerman 1987-91). (Registry GBR 1971-86, IOM 1986-91, BHS 1991-92). Sold Blue Star PACE Ltd., London (Blue Star Ship Mgmt. Ltd., London, Mgrs.) 1991 and renamed Melbourne Star (BHS) 1992- . Registered ownership transferred to Blue Star (North America) Ltd., London 1993-98, Blue Star Marine Ltd., London 1998 (same Mgrs.). (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd. acquired Blue Star Line container services 1/5/1998).
s.s. Act 5
1972 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack. Ordered by Overseas Containers Ltd., London and intended to be Chesapeake Bay.
Overseas Containers Ltd., London 1972.
(Re-engined to motor vessel by I.H.I., Yokohama 3/1987)
(Ownership registered 26/9/1972 to Blue Star Line Ltd. and Port Line Ltd., with Port Line Ltd. transferring interest to Blue Star Line Ltd. 26/9/1972. Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1987-1991). (Mgrs. Blue Star Line 1972-1991) (Registry GBR 1972-1991, BHS 1991.) Sold Blue Star PACE Ltd., London (Blue Star Line Ship Mgmt. Ltd., London, Mgrs.) 1991 and renamed Sydney Star (BHS) 1991- . Registered ownership transferred to Blue Star (North America) Ltd., London 1993-98, Blue Star Marine Ltd., London 1998 (same Mgrs.). (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., acquired Blue Star Line container services from 1/5/1998).
s.s. Australian Exporter
1972 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack
(Ownership registered Australian Coastal Shipping Commission, Melbourne 1972-1974 then Australian Shipping Commission [Australian National Line], Melbourne 1974-1990.) Withdrawn from ACTA service 1987. Arrived Hong Kong 19/10/1990 and subsequently sold 1/12/90 Red Riband Corp. (Triton Shipping), Monrovia, resold later that month to Indian shipbreakers and renamed Ali (VCT)1990. Resold Mediterranean Shipping Co.S.A.,Geneva and renamed MSC Mirella (PAN) 1991- under registered owner Raisun Investments Inc. S.A., Panama. (Sailed Hong Kong 29/12/90 and arrived Durban 31/1/1991 for refitting and repair).
s.s. Act 6
1972 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack (Laid down as Act 5)
(Converted to motor vessel by I.H.I., Nagoya 5/1987)
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd., London 1972-1973, Port Line Ltd., London 1973-1987, Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd., 1987-1991). (Mgrs. Cunard Line 1972-87, Cunard Ellerman 1987-91.) (Registry GBR 1972-91, BHS 1991-92). Sold Blue Star PACE Ltd., London (Blue Star Ship Mgmt. Ltd., London, Mgrs.) 1991 and renamed Queensland Star (BHS) 1992- . Registered ownership transferred to Blue Star (North America) Ltd., London 1993-98, Blue Star Marine Ltd., London 1998 (same Mgrs.). (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd. acquired Blue Star Line container services 1/5/1998).
1973 by Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd., Walker Shipyard, Newcastle for P&O Steam Nav. Co. Ltd., London. (Converted to motor vessel by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kobe 12/1983)
On charter to ACTA/ANL 1973-1977. Reverted to owners 1977 and renamed Remuera Bay (GBR)1977-1991. Ownership registered to P&O Containers Ltd., London 1987-96, Abbey National March Leasing (1) Ltd., London 1996 (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., Mgrs.) 1996. Renamed Berlin Express (GBR) (same owners) 1994 under charter to Hapag Lloyd, Hamburg 1994- .
m.v. Australian Venture
1977 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack
Ownership registered to Australian Coastal Shipping Commission (Australian National Line), Melbourne 1977-1996. Withdrawn from ACTA service 1987. Sold to Lavicer Investments Corp., Panama (Mediterranean Shipping Co. S.A., Geneva, Mgrs.) 1996 and renamed MSC Nuria (PAN) 1996- .
m.v. Act 7
1977 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack
(Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd. 1977-1991). (Blue Star Line, Mgrs. 1977-91). Sold P&O Containers Ltd., London 1991 and renamed Palliser Bay (GBR) 1991- . Ownership registered to P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., London 1997.
m.v. Act 8
Built 1978 by A.G “Weser”, Bremen for Ellerman Lines Ltd. and The Charente S.S.Co., London, as City of Durban (GBR) 1978-85 (Apart from being renamed Portland Bay (GBR) 1983 for one voyage under charter to Overseas Containers Ltd., London).
Under charter to ACTA and renamed Act 8 (IOM) 1985-1990. Reverted to owners 1990 and renamed City of Durban (IOM). Ellerman Line interest sold to P&O Containers Ltd. 1991 and ownership registered to P&O Containers Ltd. and The Charente S.S. Co., London 1991. (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., Mgrs. from 1997). Renamed Pegasus Bay (IOM) 1996- (same owners).
m.v. Act 9
1984 by J.J. Seitas GmbH & Co. and K.G.Schiffswft, Hamburg as Hannoverland (DEU) for Bugsier-Reederei-und Bergungs GmbH, Hamburg 1984- . (Renamed Lloyd Londres (DEU) 1985‑1986 under charter to Lloyd Brasileiro, Rio de Janeiro.
Under charter to ACTA for PACE WEST service and renamed Act 9 (DEU) 1986-1990, renamed Columbus Oregon (DEU) 1990-1991. Reverted to owners 1991 and renamed Hannoverland (DEU) 1991. Renamed Sea Beach (DEU) (same owners) 1991-1993. Reverted to Hannoverland (DEU) 1993-1994. Renamed Maersk La Plata (DEU) (same owners) 1994-1997. Reverted to owners 1997. Sold Reederei m.s. “Christine Eberhardt” GmbH & Co., Hamburg (Carl F. Peters GmbH & Co., Hamburg, Mgrs.) 1997 and renamed Christine Eberhardt (ATG) 1997, CGM De Lesseps (ATG) 1997-98 (same owners), Melbridge Christine (ATG) 1998- (same owners).
m.v. Act 10
1986 by Martin Jansen GmbH & Co., K.G. Schiffswft u Fbk,Leer. Launched as Maria Sibum(DEU) but completed as Act 10.
Sibum GmbH & Co. KG m.s. “Maria Sibum” (Sibum GmbH & Co.KG, Hamburg.
Under charter to ACTA for PACE WEST service as Act 10 (DEU) 1986. Reverted to owners 1988 and renamed Karaman (DEU) 1988-1993. Renamed Independent Concept (DEU)1993 (same owners), Kent Trader (DEU) (same owners) 1993-97, Maria Sibum (DEU) 1997- (same owners).
m.v. Act 11
1986 by J.J. Seitas GmbH & Co. K.G.Schiffswft, Hamburg for Partenreederi m. s. “Jan Ritscher” GmbH & Co., Reederei K.G., Hamburg. Launched as Jan Ritscher but completed as Act 11.
Under charter to ACTA for PACE WEST service as Act 11 (DEU) 1986. Reverted to owners 1988 and renamed Jan Ritscher (DEU) 1988. Renamed Independent Pursuit (DEU) (same owners) 1988-1993. Reverted to owners and renamed Jan Ritscher (DEU) 1993-96. Sold Mild Lin Shipping Corp., Panama (Moon Keung Shipping and Transportation Ltd., Hong Kong, Mgrs.1996-97, Sunscot & Co. (1991) Ltd., Panama, Mgrs. 1997) and renamed Mild Lin (PAN) 1996- (same owners).
m.v. Act 12
1975 by Kherson Shipyard. Kherson, Russia as Santa Rita (DEU) for Hamburg-Sud Dampsf Ges.Eggert and Amsinck, Hamburg 1975. Converted to container ship and renamed Columbus Taranaki (DEU) 1979-1980. Renamed Monte Olivia (DEU) 1980-1982, Columbus California (DEU) 1982-1983, Saxon Star (DEU) 1983-1986 under charter to Blue Star Line Ltd., London,
Columbus California (DEU) 1986-1988 (all same owners).
Under charter to ACTA for PACE WEST service 1988-1991 and renamed Act 12 (Registry DEU 1988, TON 1988-1991). Reverted to owners 1991 and sold to Pacific International Lines (Pte.) Ltd., Singapore 1991 and renamed Kota Sabas (SGP) 1991- .
m.v. New Zealand Pacific
1978 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack for The Shipping Corporation of New Zealand Ltd., Wellington 1978-1989. Sold Fuday Ltd., Hong Kong (Denholm Ship Management Ltd., Mgrs. but remained under control of The Shipping Corporation of N.Z. Ltd.) 1989 and renamed Tui (HKG) 1989.
Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd. and Ellerman Lines Ltd., London 4/1989 but transferred 9/1989 to NWS9 Ltd., Chester, United Kingdom (Associated Container Transportation [Aust.] Ltd., London, Mgrs.) 1989-1991 and renamed New Zealand Pacific (HKG/GBR 1989-97, HKG/CHN 1997, BMU 1997- ). NWS9 Ltd. sold to P&O Containers Ltd. 1991- (same name but P&O, Mgrs.) 1991-96. Ownership registered Capital Bank Leasing (9) Ltd. (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., London, Mgrs. 1996- ).
m.v. New Zealand Mariner 1977 by Howaldtswerke-DW
Hamburg as Ulanga (DEU) for Willner Oltanker GmbH and Cosima Reederei K.G., Hamburg (Poseidon Schiffahrt GmbH, Mgrs.) 1977-78 but renamed Gulf Clipper (DEU) while fitting out (same owners). Taken over by K.G.Nord – Est Container Linien GmbH, Hamburg 1977-85 and renamed Ulanga (DEU) 1978-1985. (Later managed by Transocean Liners Reederei GmbH, Hamburg). Sold The Shipping Corporation of N.Z. Ltd., Wellington 1985 and renamed New Zealand Mariner (NZL) 1985-89.
Ownership registered to Blue Star Line Ltd., Port Line Ltd., and Ellerman Lines Ltd., London 4/1989 but transferred 9/1989 to NWS9 Ltd., Chester, United Kingdom (Associated Container Transportation [Aust.] Ltd., London, Mgrs.) 1989-1991. Renamed Marin (BHS) 1991- . (same owners/Mgrs.) NWS9 Ltd. sold P&O Containers Ltd., London 1991 (same name but P&O Mgrs.) and registered owner National Westminster (Hong Kong) Ltd., Hong Kong 1991-96. Capital Bank Leasing (9) Ltd., London (P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., London, Mgrs. 1996- ).
m.v. Act 10
1980 by Bremer Vulkan, Vegesack as New Zealand Caribbean (GBR1980-1985, NZL 1985-1989) for The Shipping Corporation of New Zealand Ltd., Wellington 1980-1989. Sold Bass New World International Ltd., Limassol (Columbia Ship Management Ltd., Limassol, Mgrs.) 1989-1990 and renamed Abacus (BHS) 1989-1990.
Transferred NWS9 Ltd., Chester, United Kingdom 1990 (same Mgrs.) and renamed Act 10 (BHS) 1990-1991 for PACE WEST service. Transferred Claire Navigation S.A., Panama 1991 (Blue Star Ship Management Ltd., London, Mgrs.) and renamed Columbia Star (BHS) 1991- . (Owners reverted to NWS9 Ltd., Chester, United Kingdom 1994-96 (same name/Mgrs.). Owners registered Capital Bank Leasing (9) Ltd., London 1998 (same name/Mgrs.)