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What is Liner Shipping and what is its role in container shipping..??

  • There are two main types of shipping services – Liner and Tramp
  • A liner service works on a fixed route, period and rotation
  • Container, Bulk, Breakbulk and RoRo all have liner services

There are more than 55,000 merchant ships plying global trade around the world and these ships include General Cargo, Bulk and Break Bulk ships, Container ships, Chemical, Oil and LNG Tankers, Passenger, and various other types of ships..

While these are types of ships, these ships could be operating on two main types of services – Liner and Tramp services..

In this article, we look at a liner service as it applies to container shipping..

Liner Service may be defined as a service that operates on a schedule with a fixed port rotation, fixed frequency (weekly, fortnightly, monthly) with published dates and sometimes named day of calls at the advertised ports..

Liner shipping is not restricted to just container ships but also applies to other types of cargoes/ships like RoRo, Bulk and Break Bulk cargo..

An example of a liner service may be as below – CMA CGM’s South China Sea Service between Asia and West Coast of North America..

liner shipping - shipping and freight resource
Image : CMA CGM

This is a liner service with a rotation of 6 ports, calling at Vung Tau, Nansha, Hong Kong, Yantian, Kaohsiung, Long Beach, Kaohsuing, Vung Tau..

This weekly service operates 7 vessels and takes 49 days on a round trip basis – i.e the time the ship will take to sail from Vung Tau calling all these ports and back to Vung Tau..

If you see the below schedules, you can see various combinations of calls, ports and blank sailings..

liner shipping - shipping and freight resource
Image : CMA CGM

In the first schedule image you can see vessels are showing a day and date which means that vessel has or will call that port on that day and date. You can also see some ports showing “Omitted” and some ports showing “—”..

The omission of some vessels at some ports may be due to a variety of reasons such as lack of cargo for that particular voyage, skipping due to delay at previous port or any other weather related instances..

You might also notice that in image 1 there is also a port Shanghai which is not part of the original rotation..

From time to time, liner services may add or omit some ports based on requirements of cargo loading – for example, some other ship on another of CMA CGM’s service may have skipped Shanghai port or they may have had cargo rollover due to overbooking etc which the subject vessel Cosco Spain may be picking up..

A liner service may also have blank sailings, meaning some vessels may skip some ports on the schedule due to various reasons including restoring schedule integrity, weather delays, strikes or like in the recent case of COVID-19 closures at Yantian port..

Therefore if you see schedule images 2,3,4 you can see that these show full vessel calls at the various ports. This means that it is the intention of the line to call all of the advertised ports on the liner service unless there are some reasons that may prevent it from doing so..

liner shipping - shipping and freight resource
Image : CMA CGM
liner shipping - shipping and freight resource
Image : CMA CGM
liner shipping - shipping and freight resource
Image : CMA CGM

In the case of CMA CGM this disclaimer is clearly mentioned on their website..

Schedules, ports of call and prices described here above, are only for indicative and commercial purpose and cannot be considered as contractual commitment. As modifications and updates can be made at any time, you are invited to check them regularly or to contact our local agents.

In reality, a liner service operator will do their best to fulfill the advertised schedule unless there are extenuating circumstances..


Conference Line

When speaking of Liner shipping, I have also received questions as to what is a Conference Line..

Conference Line was a service similar to a Liner Service in most operational aspects BUT the difference is that Conference  Line operators agree to maintain a similar rate structure to all the advertised ports..

This means that the lines operating within that Conference maintain a full monopoly on that trade route (if there are no other Conferences on the same route). However, the Conference lines have now become obsolete and vessel operators within the same conference maintain their own rate structures..

Conference Lines were an important historic feature of ocean liner transport. I mentioned “were” because the conference liner arrangements are no longer in practice in the container shipping industry..

Conference agreements were formal agreements between shipping lines engaged on various trading routes..

Across the years, although hundreds of conference agreements were established, they were not seen to be anti-competitive but rather as a mechanism to stabilise freight rates and avoid the fluctuations and variations in the supply and demand of ship capacity..

Some are even of the opinion that under Conference arrangement, BCOs were protected from volatility in freight rates, and carriers competed with each other more on the basis of service than on the basis of freight rates..


Vessel Sharing Agreements and Global Alliances

The conference system has given way to VSA (Vessel Sharing Agreements) and Global Alliances where shipping lines come together to form strategic partnerships and offer joint services by pooling vessels on many of the trade routes..

VSA stands for a Vessel Sharing Agreement which is usually reached between various container shipping lines who agree to operate a liner service along a specified route using a specified number of vessels..

It is not necessary for each of the partners to have equal number of vessels. The space that is available for loading and discharging at each of the ports of call is shared between the partners.

The quantum of space that each partner gets may vary from port to port and could depend on the number of vessels which are operated or placed by the different partners within the agreement..

Vessel Sharing Agreement

A vessel sharing agreement is slightly different to that of an alliance in that, a vessel sharing agreement is usually dedicated to a certain trade route with terms and conditions specific to that route, whereas an alliance is more global in nature and could include many different trade routes usually under the same terms..

Global alliances operate on the same liner principles and cooperate only on the operational aspects of the business while maintaining their commercial integrity and independence..

As an example, the above mentioned South China Sea service of CMA CGM is one of the services operated by the line under Ocean Alliance..

global container shipping allianceCurrently there are 3 major global container shipping alliances dominating the container shipping industry..

These 3 global container alliances consisting of 10 container shipping lines control a whopping 83.80% of the total container shipping market across various services..

The global container alliances, their lines and their market share as of July 2021 is as shown here..

The above arrangements allow the carriers to limit their commitment of the number of vessels deployed on a service, while enjoying the benefits of the service, some even without operating any ships..

Like in the above example of CMA CGM’s South China Sea service, they do not operate any ships at all..

4 of the 7 ships in the service are operated by OOCL whereas the other 3 are operated by Cosco..

In the case of a Liner service, the carrier operating the liner service will have their own pre-printed bill of lading or use a BIMCO ConLineBill..


Co-Loader/Slot Operator in Liner Shipping

In Liner Shipping, you might have come across the terminology co-loader.. You might have come across this mostly only when there is a problem taking your container in/out from the port..

A co-loader is a shipping line that has loading and discharging rights on vessels that are NOT operated by them and they get this right from the carrier/operator of the vessel by paying for slots on board that particular vessel. This is different from a consortium or vessel sharing agreement..

The operator of the vessel submits a list of co-loaders to the port/customs.. Only if this done, the port will allow containers belonging to the co-loader to be taken out or brought into the port under their own harbour account..

Based on this nomination, the co-loader gets their own loading and discharging lists from the port/vessel operator and the terminal handling charges, port storage charges, and any other container related charge incurred at the port are invoiced to the co-loaders directly by the port..

The co-loader can have their own commercial agents/offices at the various ports of call but the vessel operations at port, stowage planning, are controlled by the vessel operator..

A Slot Charterer almost always is an actual shipping line who belong to a consortium or service but may not be operating a vessel on that service..

Instead, the shipping line chooses to buy certain amount of “slots” (space on board a ship) from the principal vessel operators on every vessel. These “slots” may or may not be fixed for a voyage or for the duration of the consortium..

Example : Hapag Lloyd who is currently No.5 in the world is a slot charterer on the MSC Service to and from South Africa/Europe..

Even though Hapag Lloyd has many of their own ships and services, on this trade, they choose to operate as a slot charterer.. Similarly there are many shipping lines that charter (or hire) space or slots on a service where they don’t operate vessels..

The slot charterer functions as an independent shipping line and use their own equipment and bill of lading and has their own account with the port and the port invoices them directly for their charges.. They have no obligation to share commercial information with the vessel operator..

This co-loader is different to the co-loader involved in a Consol box shipment..


Liner shipping



The introduction of liner shipping in the container sector has spurred the growth in global trade and made the structured delivery of goods across the world possible on demand..

Container shipping productivity around the world has also improved with liner shipping and the increase in the size of ships is said to have created new operational patterns and co-operation between shipping lines..

The global container shipping alliances provide the member lines access to more loops and services with some low-cost implications while allowing the lines to share container terminals, enabling cooperation in many areas both at sea and on shore helping to achieve cost savings..

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Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiar
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..



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