Can ships speed up as fuel prices slow down?

Will ships speed up as fuel prices slow down? As fuel rates have soured over the past few years shipping lines have been forced to switch to fuel saving mode (slow steaming). Recent weeks have seen a dramatic reduction in fuel costs which gives the shipping lines a decision to make.

Do the shipping lines save money by running less vessels on each route but at a faster speed or keep going slowly with the current number of ships?  Increasing speed means using more fuel but when fuel’s cheap that outweighs the cost of running an extra vessel or two.  On one route this question seems to have come at an interesting time, a turning point in the global market.

Asia – Europe – Asia

Importing goods from Asia to Europe is commonplace and to serve the massive demand for Chinese goods in the UK the shipping lines generally go as fast as the economy and fuel costs allow. On their way back to the Far East they slowdown in order to keep their costs low.  The reason for this is that historically, on the east bound leg of the journey, the vessels were laden with empty containers and low value commodities such as waste paper and other recyclables. The change in this routine is here.  As China becomes more and more affluent there has been a boom in upmarket European products driving demand.

Time for a Change

Containers are now fairly full on both trips, yet the Chinese and the rest of the Asian population are having to wait a lot longer for their goods than us Europeans.  The opportunity has now arisen, due to the lowered fuel prices, to speed up the return leg. This has its benefits as it will keep the Europe to Asia trade growing while also allowing shipping lines to take one or two vessels out of service and still be able to offer a weekly service.

Should the shipping lines stick, leaving the number of vessels on the routes and just take the fuel savings, or could they twist, increasing their speed in one, or even both directions?

It is evident that something must, and will change but what, when and how?

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