London Gateway: The New Automated Port For The Capital

​The 44th Paviors’ Lecture was held in the Skempton Building at Imperial College on 12 February 2019. The Lecture was entitled ‘London Gateway: the new automated port for the capital’, and was delivered by Andrew Bowen, London Gateway Port Operations Director, who has been involved with the development of the port for some 14 years. The site of the Port was originally an oil refinery and has been undergoing a £1.5 billion investment. Less than half of this has come from Government sources. To date, 44 per cent of the ship and container handling facilities have been supplied.


Andrew reviewed the changes in the size of container ships since 1968, when the largest ship carried just over 1,500 teu (equivalent standard ISO containers), to the present day when ships are carrying over 22,000 teu, an increase of over 1,200 per cent. London Gateway has been designed to handle the largest ships, and has this has required carrying out deep-water dredging works to permit their passage at even the lowest tides. Andrew explained that the material dredged had been good quality sand that had all been used in the construction of the new deep water berths, in turn minimizing environmental damage. He also mentioned the discovery of 10,000 newts of an endangered species that had to be moved to new habitats that were also created from the dredged material.

The huge quay cranes had been constructed in China, shipped individually and fully assembled, to site. Offloading was carried out quite safely right on to their quayside tracks. The cranes could handle up to four containers at a time. IT systems are very important to the operation of the port, and all procedures and processes have been automated to the maximum effect. However, DP World, the port owners, were not satisfied that the lowering of containers into ships’ holds could be undertaken consistently and safely when working in automatic mode, so part of this process at least requires intervention by a crane operator. As an aside, he mentioned that a side-effect of using human operators was that their offloading times were faster than the fully-automated systems elsewhere in the world. Time is very critical in this area, as turn-round times for the ships and their goods needs to be minimized.

Mention was made of the fragile nature of some of the goods handled. As an example, most of the UK trade in bananas is handled through the port, with green bananas shipped in, offloaded and dispatched to a large warehouse, where they are ripened over six days before transporting to the various retail outlets.

Andrew provided an extensive description of the construction work and finished with explanations of how the whole process was managed. There had been a need to convince some of their sponsors that an investment of £100 million in the local road infrastructure adjacent to the port was necessary to ensure success of the port operation.

There was a Q & A session, which was well supported. Andrew responded in depth to the queries raised, including one comment about how the port might be affected by Brexit. In response to this, Andrew pointed out that 92 per cent of the goods handled by London Gateway did not have any connection to the EU, so the impact here was negligible. A further point gleaned was that each container ship offloaded some 7,000 containers on each visit but, as there were fewer goods exported from UK, up to half of the loaded containers were empty.

The audience of around 130 students, engineers and Paviors gave a rousing round of applause to what had been a most interesting and entertaining presentation.

Following the lecture, there was a drinks reception for all attendees, and then around 50 Paviors, guests and academics enjoyed supper in the Rector’s House in Queens Gate. ​