A photo taken on Jan. 16, 2019 shows a bird's-eye view of Piraeus' container terminals. (Xinhua)
BEIJING, April 24 (Xinhua) -- About 8 kilometers southwest from the city center of Athens sits the Port of Piraeus, Greece's largest port. Sitting just off the coast of the Saronic Gulf, the port's name roughly translates as "the place over the passage", functioning like a major organ of the country ever since its establishment in 400 B.C. Blessed by the patronage of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena still keeps watch over the maritime gateway to southern Europe.
In its "golden age", Piraeus presented quite a spectacle. From dawn to dusk, crowds of people flocked in and out the port. Once the working day was over, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea would push countless ships full of goods into the horizon. But the fate of Piraeus recently took a wrong turn, just as those ships would often sail through a patch of dark storm clouds while at sea.
A decade ago, a nationwide economic crisis swept through Greece and drowned Piraeus deep in woes. The port lost almost all of its customers to the upheaval. Equipment was abandoned. Four out of 12 bridge cranes could barely function. Dock workers union members blockaded the port gates. People were prevented from going to work. Port congestion worsened with each passing day. Trucks became stuck in a 5-km-long traffic jam at the gates of the port. And hopeless shipowners pulled out from business.
With the people of Piraeus stuck in turmoil, future prospects of the port looked dark. But then, in 2008, China COSCO Shipping Corporation Limited (COSCO Shipping) won the bid for the privatization of the container terminal at Piraeus with a lease for 35 years, opening a new, bright chapter for the port.
In 2010, Piraeus Container Terminal S.A. (PCT), set up by a Sino-Greek management and operation team, officially took over the operations of Terminals 2 and 3. In April 2016, COSCO Shipping purchased 67 percent of the stakes in Piraeus Port (OLP) and officially took over the port's management and operation in August of the same year. The newly-established Piraeus Port Authority S.A. (PPA) expanded its business in Greece from container terminals to ferry terminals, cruise terminals, ro-ro terminals, oil and gas terminals, and shipbuilding.
After years of operation, the container throughput of the PCT-operated Terminals 2 and 3 has increased from 680,000 TEUs per year in 2010 to 4.2 million TEUs per year in 2018. Including the capacity of Terminal 1 operated by the PPA, the container throughput of Piraeus reached 4.9 million TEUs in 2018. The port is now ranked 36th among the 100 biggest ports of the world (Lloyd's List), up from 93rd when the COSCO took over, and regaining its rightful place among Europe's major ports.
Seeing Piraeus restore its historical excellence, Tassos Vamvakidis cannot help but feel relieved and proud. "I was born in Piraeus. I work in Piraeus. I live in Piraeus. My children and my whole family are in Piraeus," he says.
Vamvakidis came to the port to find work at the age of 16 and now, forty years later, he is PCT's commercial manager. He says that transformation of the port, especially the container terminal driven by COSCO Shipping is the reason he took the job. "After seeing the changes, I happily joined the group for that."
In early 2015, the PCT started constructing the west side of Terminal 3. After complete construction in 2019, the throughput capacity of Terminals 2 and 3 is expected to reach 6.2 million TEUs per year. Taking into account the capacities of all three terminals, Piraeus will soon become the largest container terminal in the Mediterranean in terms of annual throughput capacity. Since 2018, Piraeus has been the only Mediterranean port that can serve four large container ships at the same time, each carrying more than 18,000 TEUs.
"At the moment we are still the second largest container terminal in the region of the Mediterranean Sea, but our goal is to be the first," Vamvakidis said, full of confidence in the future development of Piraeus.
Vassilis Korkidis, president of Piraeus Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that COSCO Shipping's investment in the port is Greece's "flagship project". The investment has not only reinvigorated the port with its increased throughput, but also created a prominent amount of job opportunities for locals.
Korkidis said that COSCO Shipping is one of the world's largest shipping groups, and Greek shipowners have the world's largest fleets. He dubbed the cooperation in Piraeus as "a great union."
To the north of the port, a railroad expressway travels from Piraeus through the capital cities of Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. Since April 26, 2014, the PCT has been operating a special train from Piraeus to Central and Eastern Europe, opening up a new logistics channel between China and Eastern Europe. This route saves 7-11 days of transit time compared with the traditional route from China to Western and Northern Europe. Named the "China-Europe land-sea express line" by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, this route has seen trains running back and forth for more than four years, reeling in more and more customers.
From January to October 2018, the express line delivered 44,000 TEUs, a year-on-year increase of 28 percent. Since 2017, it has served 981 customers. Today, this line directly reaches more than 32 million people in 7 countries, repainting the picture of cargo transit between China and Europe.
As a stronghold on the seaway-railway multi-modal transportation line, Piraeus endeavors to exploit its edges to the full.
"How much I'd love to have
One, two, three and four boys, proud and fine
And when one day they grow up
They'll be manly and strong
For this precious port of mine…"
Vamvakidis hummed the old tune known to every household in Greece, softly but full of emotions. His two sons, who grew up singing The Children of Piraeus, are now the young blood of the local shipping service industry.
For locals, Piraeus is full to the brim with compelling personal stories of struggle and survival. They and their forefathers have held Piraeus dear to their hearts and made it a timeless hallmark of making a living for thousands of years. Now, with the joints efforts of two great ancient civilizations, Piraeus is embracing a new life. (Contributed by Yu Shuaishuai and Li Xiaopeng, edited by Shi Chunjiao, Yang Yifan)