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California ports piling up again: Too many containers sitting too long

Import containers being shipped by rail are moving out too slowly

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

At the height of last year’s “will Christmas be canceled?” supply chain freak-out, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — with the Biden administration’s backing — proposed a highly controversial fee on import containers that sat too long in terminal yards.

The mere threat of this fee, announced on Oct. 25 for implementation Nov. 15, seemed to initially chase more boxes out the gates, as designed. Every week since then, like clockwork, the ports have cited progress and announced that the fee enforcement would be postponed until the following week.

Now, the container dwell numbers are getting worse and becoming increasingly hard to sugarcoat.

Could that proposed fee — $100 a day for each container dwelling too long, compounding an additional $100 per day thereafter — ever actually be charged?

LA/LB long-dwelling boxes doubled since February

The two ports said last Friday that the fee would be delayed again due to a combined 31% drop in aging containers since late October. But if you run the numbers with a different start date you’ll get a very different picture.

The combined number of import containers at both ports dwelling for nine days or more has more than doubled since early February, to 48,932 as of Wednesday.

This is almost exactly the number of containers dwelling on Los Angeles and Long Beach on Nov. 15 (48,905), back on the day the fee plan was originally to be implemented.

The fee plan is designed to compel importers to pull boxes from the terminals and free up space. The concern is that the cure will be worse than the disease. During the inaugural meeting of the National Shipping Advisory Council in October, one member called the fee plan “catastrophic,” another called it “crazy” and another warned it would “cause more problems than we already have.”

Maersk warned a month ago that “the likelihood of the administration implementing the fee has risen significantly.” It still hasn’t happened, but American Shipper was told Wednesday that the fee is being reassessed weekly and could be implemented at any point.

Long-dwelling containers in Long Beach

The proposed fee would target import containers moving by truck that dwell nine or more days at the terminals and containers moving by rail dwelling six or more days. (Long Beach publicly discloses data on import containers dwelling nine days or more, segregated by truck and rail, but not rail-only containers dwelling six to eight days.)

As of Wednesday, Long Beach had 8,992 containers on its terminals for nine days or more on the trucking side, and 11,509 on the rail side, for a total of 20,501. Long Beach pointed out that this is down 22% versus Oct. 28, when it began compiling the numbers.

Sounds like a success. But move the start date just a few days forward and Long Beach’s gain disappears. As far back as Nov. 5, there were fewer containers dwelling nine days or more in Long Beach than there are now. The current count is 25% higher than on Nov. 20, over seven months ago, when there were 16,398 containers dwelling nine days or more at Long Beach.

The Long Beach count hit a low of 9,928 containers dwelling nine days or more on Jan. 28. It’s now more than double that.

Chart: American Shipper based on data from the Port of Long Beach

Data from Long Beach clearly shows the culprit for the resurgence. Long-dwelling containers moving by truck are around half what they were seven months ago. In contrast, containers moving by rail are piling up, rising steadily since March.

Long-dwelling containers in Los Angeles

The Port of Los Angeles had a total of 70,290 import containers in its terminals as of Wednesday. It pointed out that this is down 26% versus Oct. 24, the day before the announcement of the fee plan. There were 28,431 containers dwelling nine or more days on Wednesday, down 24% from Oct. 24.

Chart: Port of Los Angeles based on data from Port Optimizer. Note: White dotted lines added by American Shipper to show recent increases

Sounds impressive, but yet again, it’s a matter of which dates you compare. In late January, the total number of import containers at the Port of Los Angeles hit a low of around 40,000. It’s up 76% since then.

The number of import containers in Los Angeles dwelling nine days or more sank to around 10,000 in early February. It’s now almost triple that.

‘It’s all about the rail’

As with Long Beach, rail delays are the major culprit in Los Angeles. On Wednesday, 17,010 of the containers dwelling nine or more days — 60% of the total — were on-dock rail containers waiting to load.

Of all the import containers on the terminal, 28,984 or 41% of the total were rail-bound containers.

Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said during a press conference on June 14 that there are normally around 9,000 on-dock rail containers at the terminals, less than a third of the current tally, and there would normally be no on-dock rail containers dwelling nine days or more.

Los Angeles’ rail cargo has increased sixfold since February. Asked about the ongoing issue of long-dwelling containers, Seroka said, “Right now it’s all about the rail. We’re working all out to catch up with this rail cargo.

“If we were to strip out [the rail effect] and bring the rail product back to where it normally should be, we’d have no problem with aging containers and we’d be moving imports fluidly through this port complex.”

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  1. Mark

    The government could help the rail container numbers by no longer holding up the “Southern California International Gateway” project. Thereby reducing some of the waste of trucking containers from ship to rail.

  2. Michael

    So does anyone know why rail is so backed up? Are they short of cars/carriages? Or is there a systemic jam elsewhere in the rail system?

  3. Beverly

    Great job you think it’s backed up now wait until 70,000 owner operators are taken off the road. This government is screwing everything up. The air quality is worse than it was a few years ago when owner operators where forced to purchase newer trucks. This better be rethought about.

Comments are closed.

Greg Miller

Greg Miller covers maritime for FreightWaves and American Shipper. After graduating Cornell University, he fled upstate New York's harsh winters for the island of St. Thomas, where he rose to editor-in-chief of the Virgin Islands Business Journal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, he moved to New York City, where he served as senior editor of Cruise Industry News. He then spent 15 years at the shipping magazine Fairplay in various senior roles, including managing editor. He currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two Shih Tzus.