IN JUST four days time work will begin to secure the global future of Southampton ’s historic port – and safeguard 2,000 jobs.

The long-awaited £150m expansion of the container terminal will enable the port to handle the next generation of mega container ships being brought into service by the world’s major shipping lines.

Hundreds of jobs will also be created as Southampton bids to retain its status as one of Britain’s premier ports.

Docks owners ABP will officially begin the work on Thursday as latest figures reveal almost 38 million tonnes of freight came through Southampton Port last year.

It handled 1.6m containers, confirming its position as the UK’s second largest container port behind Felixstowe.

The upgrade project, which was delayed by months of red tape and a legal challenge by Felixtowe, will create around 200 jobs as well as safeguarding 800 direct jobs and 1,200 indirect jobs.

And it comes just weeks after two of the world’s largest ocean carriers – Hapag- Lloyd’s Hamburg Express and UASC’s Jebel Ali, berthed in tandem at the container terminal for the first time ushering in “a new era”. Each are capable of carrying more than 13,000 boxes.

Berths 201 and 202 in the western docks are being combined with a reconstructed 500m long quay wall and a deeper 16m berth pocket to restore the container terminal’s four-berth capacity.

An increase in size of container ships has meant the current deepsea berths, 204 to 207, can no longer handle four of the largest vessels at the same time.

The new berth will be ready for operation in early 2014.

Four new giant quayside cranes will be ordered.

The project will cost around £90m with additional dredging of a deeper main channel, still awaiting permission, pushing the total value up to £150m.

Major works must be carried out between now and March to avoid disturbing migratory Atlantic salmon.

Port director Doug Morrison said without being able to handle the next generation of container ships Southampton would “struggle” to remain competitive.

“This new berth is absolutely essential for the long term-future of the port,” he said.

He said while the Southampton project, along with the expansion of Felixstowe and DP World ’s new Thames Gateway container terminal would create “excess capacity” in the UK it was a “vital” long term investment.

Mr Morrison said Southampton still had a location advantage as vessels calling at the port need only make a minimum deviation from the main shipping lanes, thereby offering their customers faster transit times Chris Lewis, director of DP World Southampton, which runs the container terminal, said the upgrade would underscore Southampton’s position as the first and last deep-sea port of call in Northern Europe for the Far East.

Berths 201 and 202 were the port’s original container berths and welcomed the first deep-sea container vessel, Kamakura Maru, 40 years ago. But they ceased to handle containers in the 1980s and are now used for roll-on roll-off vessels transporting cars.

The upgrade project is part of a plan to boost handling capacity from two million to 2.7 million 20ft equivalent container boxes by 2020.