Southampton is paying a heavy price in delays and road chaos as the docks become a victim of their own success as a major hub for global containership traffic.

Tempers rose yesterday when angry lorry drivers complained of long hold-ups at the container terminals.

Extensive queues built up near Dock Gate 20, spilling back on to the Millbrook Road. At times the gridlock reached as far as the M271.

Paul Allen, who works for Range International in Doncaster, said: "I've been sitting here nearly an hour now and haven't moved. It's the first time I've ever been to Southampton Docks and it's not been a very good experience unfortunately."

Another driver, 53-year-old Terry James, said: "It has taken me two hours to go a quarter of a mile. I have never seen anything like this in 30 years of driving.''

As drivers clocked-up wasted working hours in the queues and delivery timetables were disrupted, Southampton Container Terminals (SCT) said it was upgrading systems and equipment targeted at speeding up the flow of hauliers through the port.

Central to SCT's plans is a new vehicle booking system where road hauliers can arrange pre-set times for their vehicles to be processed at the terminals.

A spokesman for SCT said: "This was introduced in September and is still in its infancy but it is designed to ease this kind of situation and once it is used by the hauliers more it will have a significant impact on delays."

However, Ron Griffiths, managing director of STS Eurolink in Nursling, said he tried to book a slot to pick up a container yesterday but ended up abandoning the idea.

"We're on the fast track system so we entered the system at about 2.30pm on Monday to request a booking slot for 6am-7am yesterday and the earliest slot they were able to give us was 4pm-5pm, which is ludicrous.

"We just abandoned it because we can't afford to have a vehicle hanging around all day. It means the customers who want the containers out don't get them out when they want and it just snowballs - the situation is just farcical."

Southampton now handles about seven per cent of the UK's overseas trade and more than half of all Britain's container traffic with the Middle and Far East, together with more than 70 per cent of containers from South America.

SCT said it was coping with unprecedented levels of trade as the UK's second most important centre for the container sector.

The city's containership berths are now the busiest they have ever been with SCT on course for another record-breaking year. Last month alone, the terminals handled 75,000 container units - by far the most seen in Southampton in one month.

This also comes as SCT builds up to its peak time of the year as more and more vessels arrive from the Far East laden with Christmas cargo.

As scores of lorries stretched bumper to bumper along the roads leading to the city's Western Docks, the position on the quayside was just as jammed after disruption to ship schedules caused by the weekend gales.

A SCT spokesman said: "Delays as a result of the terrible weather faced by ships over the last few days just did not help at all.''