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How fast can LA clear out its ships?

Pressure on 24/7 strategy mounts as 25 more container ships get set to arrive at San Pedro Bay anchorage

Faster vessel unloading won’t happen until trucks, rail coordinate. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Now that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have moved to 24/7 operations, pressure is mounting to reduce the backlog of ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay.

But more coordination will be required among the links in the Southern California supply chain before that can happen. And with 25 more container ships filled with holiday inventory from Asia scheduled to anchor within the next three days, results have to come fast.

As part of the ports’ new 24/7 operating plan, instead of waiting for cargo owners to pick up their cargo when they are ready – a “pull system” – the ports are using a “push system” to identify cargo owners and get commitments from them to pick up their containers.

“It also means getting commitments from the liner shipping companies to have an equal number of exports and empty containers returned to give truckers the round-trip economics they need and reduce gate turn times,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka at a press conference on Thursday.

“In effect, if we can continue to push out this cargo like we’ve shown in early days with our rail partners on the trucking side, that will give us more room on the terminal to bring in these ships even quicker.”

Seroka would not give a forecast as to when the current number of ships at anchor – 62 on Thursday, compared to a record-high  73 last month – will be reduced to the normal handful. However, he noted that import volume may plateau after the Thanksgiving holiday, providing an opportunity to make a dent in the backlog.

“Most retailers are telling me that following the [early February] Lunar New Year holiday [in China], we’ll see the second quarter of 2022 focused on replenishment of inventory at the store and distribution facilities level,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us to squeeze every minute and hour of productivity out. The more cargo we can get out the gates via truck and rail leaves more room to get that next ship in. Our goal continues to be to chip down at that number of container ships at anchor every day.”

Port truckers struggling

Many of the 18,000 truck drivers who haul the containers in and out of the ports and adjacent container yards are not yet convinced of the potential of the ports’ 24/7 push system. Commenting on the plan at the Port of Los Angeles, announced on Wednesday by President Biden, the Harbor Trucking Association, which represents drayage truckers, said alleviating the congestion and reducing ship backlogs will not be accomplished merely by moving to 24/7 operations.

“It should be noted that thousands of empty containers sitting in motor carrier yards on top of chassis are unable to be returned into the port complex because of overly restrictive appointment requirements,” the association said in a statement on Wednesday.

“For instance, if truckers can’t secure an appointment to return an empty container, they can’t free up the chassis to move an import off dock, so those appointments go unused. Furthermore, if truckers cannot count on consistent skilled staffing levels during the second half of the second shift on top of the empty return restrictions, those appointments go unused.”

Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said truckers have already been operating around the clock “but are often restricted by factors beyond their control, such as excessive detention time and the lack of readily available, safe parking for their trucks.”  

“These problems must finally be addressed if the administration hopes to implement any significant supply chain solutions. It’s not realistic to expect the supply chain will suddenly operate efficiently on a 24/7 schedule when drivers aren’t being fully paid for their time.”

Major export lag

Despite the backlog of ships waiting to get into the port with overseas imports, the port recorded its best September in its 114-year history, Seroka confirmed, with total container volume of approximately 900,000 TEUs driven by high consumer demand.

At the same time, however, exports at the port were at record lows. Outbound loaded containers at the port fell to 76,000 TEUs, a 42% drop compared to last year and the lowest since 2002. The ratio of imports to exports came in at a high of 6:1, the widest monthly gap recorded at the port. 

“This is obviously an area of great concern, and we’ve talked about this at the federal state and local level,” Seroka said. “We have to create policy and incentives to get our American exporters back in the game.”

Rolling out 24/7 nationwide

John Porcari, who is coordinating the move to 24/7 operations as port envoy to Biden’s Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force, said that getting major big-box retailers to commit to 24/7 operations for at least the next 90 days represents the other half of the solution to clearing out the ports. He believes the change represents a “nationwide” opportunity.

“It’s been clear over the last couple of weeks that as a nation, we have to move to a 24/7 supply chain,” Porcari said during the press conference. “The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are doing it at their end, cargo owners are doing it at theirs, and now need to energize the rest of the system.”

One of the keys to accomplishing that goal, he said, is secure data sharing – something that has so far eluded the industry.

“In private discussions with CEOs throughout the supply chain, they admit we need better, more transparent data on a national basis,” Porcari said. “You can’t fix what you can’t measure, and we need to move toward that. The guiding principles of an open-architecture system of transparency, real time data, and protecting proprietary data can all be achieved.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.


  1. Gunny HiWay

    I am not in transportation and you men and women are HEROS!
    I am deeply sorry that our “representatives” nationwide have let you down and demonized you as well.
    They have made your service to this nation intolerable and they do not seem to care one iota.
    We cannot “vote our way out of this” as the elections are clearly faulty if not rigged altogether.
    I cannot believe that Newsom was re-elected and that Biden actually got more than 20 million real votes.
    Now…We get the insane VAX mandates that I will never comply with even if they start to deny SSI/Disability payments as they probably will try to do.
    Take care,
    #GardasilKilledJessica ~ 12/16/1993-12/24/2013

  2. Richard M Rehmer

    It isn’t just in California it is in every port that container ships come into, in rail yards across the nation there simply is too much bureaucracy involved, a lack of container trailers and lack of trucks to move the surplus freight plus they don’t want to pay us enough to do it, fuel prices are killing us, the lack of people to unload and reload, the list goes on. Then there are the lines at the port, as the gentleman said miss your appointment time your stuck with a container till they reschedule you. Get rid of all the red tape, and so on next it is going to be vaccine mandates for us, you want your goods, then ease up a bit, the 24/7 nonsense is only as good a HOS rules you can’t drive 24/7 if there are no qualified people to drive the truck when one driver get to the limit allowed, then the truck sits for 10 hours. There is no real answer to this shortage that is feasible in my eyes

  3. tom wilson

    I have yet to get a satisfactory answer to the question of why I cannot pickup my container at a rail terminal yard – UP4 in Chicago for instance – with my own equipment?

  4. Jason Gurbal

    Emodal is more of a problem than part of the solution. The system now is too rigid and inflexible. If i miss an appt or miss a pull becsuse of port congestion. The next appt might be 2-3 days or a week later because the appts are container specific rather than any eligible one that i am named the preferred trucker on.

    1. i

      How many ships can the port unload in 24 hours if everything is working right. This article fails to ask and answer the question. if someone would answer this we would know exactly when this could end.

Comments are closed.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.