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A new traffic control system for the world's busiest port

Here at the world's busiest port, work will begin later this year on what will be the most advanced sea-traffic management system anywhere -- a complex computer and radar-based system that will reduce dramatically the risk of collision.

Permission to begin building the $125 million Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) is expected in April from the Dutch Transportation Ministry and the Rotterdam city government, which will pay two-thirds and one-third, respectively, of the construction costs. The system will be operational by 1985 , port officials say.

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Completion of the system, replacing an outdated radar system, will come none too soon. Besides the steadily rising quantity of dangerous cargo being handled by the port, highly flammable and potentially explosive liquid petroleum gas (LPG) will be arriving in large amounts beginning in 1984.

Last November, the Dutch government, overriding environmental objections, gave the green light to British Petroleum and Royal Dutch/Shell to build what will be Europe's largest LPG terminal at the Rotterdam port.

When completed in another three years, the BP-Shell terminal, which is projected to cost $150 million, will be capable of handling 3 to 5 million tons of LPG per year, or up to three times the total LPG consumed by the Netherlands today. Two 60,000-cubic-meter storage tanks will be built, as will a berth able to receive ships carrying, at first, up to 75,000 cubic meters of LPG and later up to 125,000 cubic meters. Shipped mainly from North and South America, the Middle East, the North Sea, and the Far East, the LPG will be used as feedstocks for Europe's petrochemical industry and for fuel, especially in the Benelux countries and West Germany.

"The VTMS," according to J. C. M. de Keijser, a Rotterdam port official, "is being developed by the Dutch company Philips Nederland NV and will replace the present system of 11 radar units placed along the 12-mile estuary lined with harbor basins and berths." Built in 1956, the system was considered at the time the most sophisticated such facility in the world."But there have been problems."

The new system will comprise 25 unmannered radar stations, five manned traffic-control centers, several closed-circuit television sets, and a harbor coordination center, which will receive and store information gathered at the "sensors" in a data processing unit. "It will be completely computerized," Mr. De Keijser explained. "There will be no 'blind spots,' as we had in the old system, and an automatic tracking system will follow the ships from when they enter the estuary from the open sea to when they arrive at their berth."

Transmission of information by telephone, teleprinter, written messages, or all three, has not always been satisfactory, Mr. De Keijser said. "The VTMS will enable officials to push a button and obtain full, up-to-the-minute information on incoming and outgoing vessels. It will make it possible to alert pilots, tug crews, and linesmen when necessary --and to direct operations efficiently in the case of emergency and to help avoid emergencies altogether."

Port statistics show that despite an overall increase in traffic over the past decade, the number of accidents in the Rotterdam port has fallen. On average, there have been 2 serious accidents each year, 6 fairly serious accidents, and 40 minor incidents.

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Rotterdam port authorities began drawing up a rough outline of the new system in 1975. ("We realized that the old system was simply becoming old," Mr. De Keijser said.) But it wasn't until late 1978 that the pace of the project began to pick up. The authorities sent questionnaires to 19 organizations representing users of the port and several government agencies asking them to describe their vision of an ideal traffic-management system.

The survey was completed last August, and among the requirements set forth by the users were that the system should be able to recognize the very shape of vessels; pinpoint not only 550,000-dead-weight-ton tankers but buoys and small pleasure craft; distinguish targets in "confused situations"; and operate equally effectively in good and bad weather. It was also generally felt that guidance should be mandatory for VLCCs (very large crude carriers), ships carrying dangerous cargo, and vessels in distress.

To supplement the new system the port's dangerous-goods department is devising a special operating procedure for tankers that will use the BP-Shell LPG terminal. According to the department's head, C. W. Damman, the procedure is the most sensitive question he has had to deal with in 15 years, despite the fact that supplies of LPG -- albeit small and irregular -- have been handled at the port for years. Among the measures being considered is stopping all other shipping traffic for 30 minutes on either side of the time an LPG tanker is moving in the port area.

"Whatever we finally come up with," Mr. Damman said, "it will be strict."

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