For years shipping lines have been focused on building ever-larger container ships carrying up to 20,000 containers, for economies of scale. Over 40 ultra large container vessels (ULCV) are expected to join the global fleet in 2018. But falling charter rates and bunker charges mean that smaller ships are economic again.

Leading the way is CMA CGM who introduced their fortnightly South East Asia/ North Europe service last Jul, upgrading the loop to weekly this month.

Hyundai Merchant Marine’s Asia-Europe express service (AEX), is scheduled to start operations on 8 April with the departure of the 4,728-teu Hyundai Forward from Busan.

The service’s port rotation has been confirmed: Busan, Shanghai, Ningbo, Kaohsiung, Yantian, Singapore, Colombo, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Southampton, Singapore, Hong Kong, and back to Busan.

The introduction of the AEX service and more ships on the CMA CGM SEANE loop reduces the average size of the ship on this most critical route but more importantly offers an additional level of service, more capacity and more choice for shippers.

HMM’s marketing focus for its AEX service is speed, with quoted transit times of 28 days from Shanghai to Rotterdam. Industry analyst Drewry noted, “If they can combine speed with reliability they will have a valuable USP to differentiate themselves.”

The return of the Classic Panamax ships into Asia-Europe waters has been facilitated by cheaper charter rates, which Drewry say shows that chartered 6,000 teu units are actually more cost-competitive than owned 10,000 teu ships.

However, they are more costly per teu than owned ULCVs of over 18,000 teu, which makes their window of viability narrower should conditions change, Drewry said.

Drewry concluded: “The Classic Panamax revival in the Asia-Europe trade is not expected to become a fast-growing trend, but so long as charter rates remain attractive and bunker costs do not escalate too sharply there is space for a handful of such services that can offer something unique to the ma