Neptune Orient Lines Ltd., which has been using Virginia's inland port at Front Royal, has decided to resume service to Baltimore using barges operated by Hale Container Line.
Maryland Port Administration officials welcomed the announcement as further evidence of the increased ability of Baltimore to compete for cargo and steamship lines.
"People are beginning to believe we're making strides," Adrian Teel, executive director of the MPA, said yesterday. "There's a lot of optimism out there."
"This is a big victory for the port and myself," said Edwin F. Hale, head of the Baltimore-based barge company that bears his name. "I don't like to lose any business. I made it a personal cause to get that back. We've achieved that."
The decision by Neptune Orient in May 1990 to divert its Baltimore barge traffic to Front Royal sent shivers through port interests in Baltimore because of fears that other important lines might follow suit.
Front Royal was designed to allow steamship lines to serve the Baltimore area without using the port of Baltimore.
For example, a line could send its ship to Norfolk, then send cargo by rail to Front Royal, in the Shenandoah Valley. Trucks would pick up the cargo and deliver it to markets such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The idea was that steamship lines would be able to compete in those markets without incurring the expense of sending barges or ships the extra distance up the bay to Baltimore.
Neptune Orient's decision to use Front Royal may have been a big boost for the inland port, but the company's decision to leave raises new questions about the practicality of that port.
Neptune Orient is expected to ship the equivalent of 5,000 to 6,000 20-foot containers a year on the Hale barges, significantly reducing the cargo that moved through Front Royal.
The Neptune Orient business will mean a significant increase in work for the port of Baltimore's longshoremen, perhaps 18 additional hours each month for the crew of about 30 workers who load and unload the Hale barges.
"Things like this, they mount up," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., which represents employers of dockworkers in the port. "They make you feel good about yourself, good about the port."