May 1, 2020
When Chris Rea penned his track Steel River, its lyrics read like a diary entry lamenting the plight of a former love.
Mourning the demise of heavy industry across Teesside, the song charted the loss of the shipbuilders and the bridgebuilders that had afforded the region international acclaim.
It remembered Second World War Nazi raids, when the area’s productive iron and steel plants gained Luftwaffe attention, and the sad irony of how the River Tees’ cleaner waters – the consequence of business dissolution – had heralded the arrival of salmon.
“Ten thousand bombers hit the steel river,” recalled the lad from Middlesbrough.
“She survived but now she’s gone forever; her burning heart is just a memory,” he sang.
But it isn’t.
While the landscape has undoubtedly altered, the channel remains a crucial industrial artery.
Teesside’s renowned chemical processing sector, the emergence of Sirius Minerals’ potash mining development and the ever-growing offshore energy industry are all nourished by their proximity to the river.
At the heart of all of this sits Teesport.
The Northern gateway for global shippers, the site serves markets including Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia, Belgium and Japan.
Handling 28 million tonnes of cargo every year, the base also acts as the Statutory Harbour Authority for the River Tees, managing traffic and ensuring safety on the waterway.
It is, in short, a substantial player in Teesside’s – and the wider North East’s – standing worldwide.
Such significance, however, has become even greater in recent weeks.
As the coronavirus outbreak delivers unprecedented uncertainty to business and everyday life, Teesport is safely anchored amid the flux.
With all maritime sector employees identified by the Government as key workers in the fight against COVID-19, Teesport is able to continue operations.
Managing deliveries of food, medicine, fuel and chemicals, as well as metals, agricultural feeds and forestry products, it is no exaggeration to say the site – overseen by Middlesbrough-headquartered national operator PD Ports – is keeping the country moving.
“It is a bit of a paradoxical situation,” says PD Ports’ chief executive Frans Calje, when asked about the impact of COVID-19 on operations.
“If I look down on what is happening on the river, I see it is business as usual yet there is clearly a large concern around coronavirus.
“But we are doing what we’ve always done; we are making sure we keep Britain moving,” he continues.
“That is important because everything that you could possibly imagine you need in your daily life will, in some shape or form, have come through a port.
“A lot of chemicals come in and out, which are turned into polymers and plastics to make personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers or food wrapping,” adds Frans, who joined PD Ports in 2008 as key projects director.
“The lamps we use, our phones, the tyres our cars run on and the chairs we sit on; 95 per cent of what we do in Britain comes through our ports.”
Integral to Teesport’s continued operations during the coronavirus pandemic are the measures bosses have implemented to maintain a sense of routine amid the restrictions.
Its Business Continuity Management team meets daily, using guidance from the Government and Public Health England to minimise any potential impact on employees, customers and visitors.
This has already led to the introduction of steps such as staff – who are able – working from home and social distancing requirements for those carrying out essential on-site duties.
Further actions involve the issuing of pre-visit questionnaires, a requirement for all ships to submit a Declaration of Health Statement prior to arrival, and the enforcement of a motion that all site inductions and paperwork are completed before arrival.
“There is strong resilience in our business to keep the river flowing,” says Frans, who took over as chief executive in 2017.
“We were very well prepared – our business continuity protocol has worked exceptionally.
“None of us have gone through a global pandemic before and we are taking responsibility and ensuring the river keeps trading for the benefit of all users of Teesport.
“People are working from home where they can, but we still have engineers, pilots and the harbour masters’ office who have to be at their stations because that is where it all happens in terms of keeping the river and terminals going.
“They can do their jobs because of the social measures we have in place,” continues Dutch-born Frans, who started his career at the Port of Rotterdam.
“We haven’t missed a beat.
“The real heroes are the people who are at the frontline of the NHS, but our workers are doing an absolutely amazing job too.”
The responsibility Frans highlights hasn’t come by chance, nor is it a coincidence of coronavirus.
Today’s sprawling port site – with its vast container terminals, dedicated rail links and Teesport Commerce Park, which houses firms such as ship repairer A&P and portable building supplier Mobile Mini – is markedly different from base’s infancy in early October 1963.
Back then, Tees Dock officially opened with its No.1 Quay comprising just two cranes, a warehouse, office block and maintenance department.
In the present day, the site carries an altogether different complexion, with more than £1 billion invested directly and indirectly over the last decade to support advancements across operations such as transport networks, logistics and IT.
A previous £50 million quay reconstruction project means Teesport can accommodate vessels carrying as much as 70,000 tonnes of cargo and load goods at any level of tide.
Furthermore, significant investments to facilitate the movement of bulk cargoes provides the site with greater agility to flex with customers’ ever-changing requirements when moving goods such as aggregates, forest products and chemicals, with this nimbleness supported by advanced storage solutions and rail connections.
In addition, its giant container platform has enjoyed year-on-year volume growth thanks to a phased £120 million investment in infrastructure and equipment, while its £3 million intermodal rail terminal, established in 2014, offers crucial links for importers and exporters.
Moving freight between Felixstowe and Southampton in the south, the terminal also operates more daily services to Scotland than any other port – running more than 25 a week in total – with the latter timetabled to complement the arrival of P&O Ferries’ vessels that link the region with Zeebrugge and Rotterdam.
The system means Teesport’s rail services are anticipated to grow by as much as 50 per cent over the next ten years. Yet while such investments mean the environment has altered markedly, the spirit of the Teesside stevedores and river masters that shaped the port’s formative years endures. It was present when the first Datsun cars arrived in the 1960s, it was on show when the Tees Dock Steel Export Terminal and a second quay – the latter commemorated by a visit from the Queen – opened in the 1970s.
It was there when the one millionth Nissan vehicle passed through the port, when helicopters were despatched to the Falkland Islands and when second-hand ambulances were exported to Cuba.
It was there when PD Ports took full control of Teesport in the mid-1990s and there when the site became the hub for Redcar-based SSI UK’s international steel deliveries.
“There is a real ‘roll up our sleeves and get this done’ mentality here,” says Frans.
“All of the people down on the river are doing exactly that. “The response to the coronavirus outbreak has been incredibly supportive and breathtakingly positive – it really tells you a lot about the people we employ.
“[When SSI went into liquidation] we could just have wallowed and sat down, but we didn’t, we got on with it.
“When I’m down on the terminals, there is a very strong sense of belonging, a duty of care and responsibility.
“Everyone understands what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
It is this culture, says Frans, that leaves the port perfectly positioned for growth when the COVID-19 outbreak abates and operations – and everyday life – regain a sense of normality.
For Frans, the will of Teesport’s team, allied to the impact of its quay, container and rail investments – and opportunities such as Sirius Minerals’ polyhalite development that will export fertiliser from a River Tees harbour – means he is able to think about success across future decades.
“The business revolves around its people and we treat people the way we would want to be treated on any day of the year outside such a crisis,” says Frans, who took on the chief executive role from David Robinson.
“We have nurtured a culture here where we delegate responsibility downwards.
“That creates accountability and what we get back are people that feel part of the business,” continues Frans.
“It makes my job a lot easier and means I can think about the strategy and where the business is going in the long- term.
“While you’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“But you quickly recognise that somewhere down the line this is going to come to an end.
“With some of the opportunities on the horizon, such as offshore energy, Sirius Minerals and our growing container business, we can make Teesport the second largest port in Britain.
“I refuse to sit in the doldrums.”