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Marine terminals look to tech to keep trucking on track at ports

(Photo: Yusen Terminals)

This article brought to you courtesy of NEXT Trucking

Ports are a warren of truck lanes and container stacks. That physical maze is matched by the maze of rules and procedures drayage drivers face every day.

At a time when carriers want to wring every efficiency they can from drivers, seaports still present an ongoing operational challenge for trucking companies. But terminals are looking at ways to provide truck drivers with the most up-to-date information possible. 

Jerry Critchfield, vice President at California-based Weber Logistics, wrote in a recent blog post that it can take a driver up to 30 days to become familiar with how each terminal operates. During that time, a new driver is only half as efficient as a seasoned driver. 

He cites the example of the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex, which encompasses thirteen different container terminals. Critchfield said each terminal has its own rules for trucker appointments, driver procedures once on the terminal, and hours of operation. 

While those rules are generally static, carriers and drivers have to stay abreast of procedures on dropping off empty containers and returning chassis. Those rules can someimtes change in the middle of a driver’s shift.  

“Navigating seaport terminals is a tricky business on a good day and can become extremely difficult as rules change from terminal-to-terminal, or even hour-to-hour,” Crtichfield wrote.

Weston LaBar, chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association, agrees that inconsistency in trucking operations among the terminals is a hurdle to more efficient trucking operations.  

“Terminals still operate very uniquely from one another,” LaBar said. Even registering to pick up a container, “some terminals want license plate numbers for trucks entering the terminals, while some want driver license numbers,” LaBar said. An incorrectly filled out form can result in a delay in getting a container. 

Mid-shift changes on returning empty containers also make it more difficult for a driver to perform a dual transaction at a terminal. Those mid-shift rule changes violate a 2005 California law that prevents a marine terminal or steamship lines from imposing per-diem charges on equipment that cannot be returned due to terminal congestion, LaBar said.

“There are restrictions when you have to do a dual transaction if you don’t have the type of equipment that the terminal is accepting or there is something wrong with the chassis,” he added. 

Missed appointments or bringing the wrong equipment to a terminal generate a “trouble ticket,” requiring a driver to seek assistance from terminal personnel. Only about 3 percent of trips to marine terminals result in trouble tickets, but they can delay a driver for hours depending on the severity of the issue. 

Terminals are looking at how to better integrate operations with drayage carriers. APM Terminals is testing projects at 10 terminals to “improve the trucker experience.” In Los Angeles, APM will provide email and text alerts about operational issues as well posting turn time information outside of the terminal.

Yusen Terminals in Los Angeles built what LaBar calls a “trucker friendly” appointment system that allows drivers to create same-day appointments. 

Yusen Terminals Chief Executive Officer Alan McCorkle said the same-day appointment system provides more leeway to drivers that face unexpected delays or other operational issues. 

McCorkle said the number of cancelled appointments at Yusen is lower than it is at other terminals and “what that points to for me is that the flexibility in the appointment system means truckers can meet more of their appointments.”

Other terminals are looking at ways to provide real-time data to the carriers. Long Beach Container Terminal developed application programming interfaces that can let drayage carriers know when containers become available, automatic cancellation of appointments and automatic grouping of appointments to facilitate dual transactions.

LaBar said HTA members are most interested in getting operational updates directly into their back-office systems rather than having to use yet another website.

“We want information to come directly into our transport management systems,” LaBar said. “We don’t want yet another portal.”

Trucking companies will also have to adapt new technology to keep up with the information systems being built at marine terminals,  LaBar said. He noted that companies in the “freight tech” space such as NEXT Trucking are building out resources with the primary focus being on the technology.

“The lines of distinction between tech and transportation companies are being blurred,” LaBar said.”It is easier to build from scratch in most situations than to redevelop existing systems. This allows companies with native systems to get more creative in how they are building out their operating systems.”