Port Report: Long Beach looks to ease truck flow, but sees rail as future of freight movement

Port aims to reduce truck turn times as shippers look more closely at terminal performance; rail seen as key to expedite cargo.

The head of the one of biggest U.S. ports says more can be done to improve trucking operations, which became a major choke point during this past peak shipping season.

The move to ease trucking congestion comes as major shippers are taking ocean carriers to task for trucking delays at marine terminals. But alongside trucking, the port sees rail as a big part of its ability to handle future volumes.  

Mario Cordero, the executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said he was “generally satisfied” with the port’s performance during 2018, a year marked by shippers rushing cargo into the U.S. ahead of potential tariffs.

But the seven percent growth in volume came with increasing delays for truck drivers moving containers in and out of the port. Data from the Harbor Trucking Association shows the average visit time for drivers at Long Beach and the neighboring Port of Los Angeles reached 98 minutes in January, the highest in nearly three years.  

“I think we handled [the peak shipping season] well,” Cordero said. “Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But, overall, we were able to move that cargo.”

He says Long Beach largely worked down the backlog of freight by the end of February. Still, turn times at the Long Beach-Los Angeles port complex averaged 90 minutes last month.

Those turn times are coming into more focus for shippers who are left on the hook for increasing drayage costs and detention and demurrage fees as containers get delayed. Robert Loya, president of the Harbor Trucking Association, said major shippers plan to use turn-time and delay measurements as they structure their ocean shipping contracts in the coming months.

The shippers realize “to keep their costs down, they have to hold the people who have their ocean shipping contracts accountable,” Loya said. “There are going to be financial repercussions for ocean carriers for delays.”

To deal with expected volume growth and further reduce those turn times, Cordero said the Port of Long Beach and its tenant terminals need to adopt an “Amazon state of mind” in terms of quickly moving containers off ships, through the terminals, and out to road and rail.  

As to what can be done to speed freight fluidity, “I think we need improvements on truck turn times and we need improvement on extended gate hours and gate management,” Cordero said.

Since container ships start unloading as soon as they arrive and railroads also continuously move, it’s conceivable that Long Beach could go to 24-hour gate openings for trucks, Cordero said.

“It’s not a short-term goal, but we need to be visionary, given the importance of this gateway,” Cordero said. “Given what our forecast is for the next 10 years, we are going to have to get to that point.”  

But improving turn times is the more immediate goal, and the more complex one facing drayage operators due the alliance structure of ocean carriers.

Ocean carriers are calling at different marine terminals that are part of another alliance member’s service string, resulting in containers belonging to one ocean carrier being dropped off at a different terminal than it was previously picked up at.

That’s creating imbalances throughout Long Beach and Los Angeles marine terminals. As a result, marine terminals may limit container drop-offs due to their own space restrictions.

Drayage drivers are left figuring out the latest pick-up and drop-off policy for each terminal and   juggling appointment systems that are in place at nine of the 12 terminals in Southern California.

Unexpected delays at one terminal may mean drivers miss appointments at another terminal, resulting in overbooking of appointments. At the same time, many motor carriers complain about the lack of appointments at particular terminals.

After the first appointment system was put in place five years ago, “now it’s about refining the system, and putting into place accountability on both sides,” Loya said. “We’re going to continually change the model because what’s in place now is flawed on both sides. It can be manipulated by the terminals and manipulated by the motor carriers.”

A port-wide common appointment system was part of the 2017 Clean Air Action Program, which was established to reduce trucking emissions sharply at the Port. Cordero said Long Beach has met or is close to meeting the emissions goals but work still has to be done on a common appointment system.

Although Advent Intermodal Solutions provides most of the appointment software used in the port, Loya said terminals are still keeping their systems closed due to competitive concerns.

“We need a portal that interfaces with your proprietary system, whether it’s GE Port Optimizer or Advent or whoever, we are agnostic,” Loya said. “We just want a single location to do business.”

But even as Long Beach seeks to ease trucking operations, Cordero said improving rail operations will also be a key to handling future freight flows.

Long Beach is moving ahead with the Pier B On-Dock Rail facility, which will add five tracks designed for 10,000-foot container unit trains to reach the port. That will allow up to 17 trains per day to serve the Port by 2032. Other projects also include double track access to the Pacific Container Terminal and the ITS Terminal at Piers J and G.

Once these projects are complete, Cordero said, rail will move half of all containers out of Long Beach, up from just over one-third currently.

“Rail is going to be a way to move cargo out of the harbor faster to inland distribution centers,” Cordero said. “No other region can claim to have the rail infrastructure we have here in Southern California, so we need to amplify that for the future.”

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Michael Angell, Bulk and Intermodal Editor

Michael Angell covers maritime, intermodal and related topics for FreightWaves. His interest in transportation stretches back several generations. One great-grandfather was a dray horseman along the New York waterfront and another was a railway engineer in Texas. More recently, Michael has written about the shipping industry for TradeWinds, energy markets for Oil Price Information Service, and general business topics for FactSet Mergerstat and Investor's Business Daily. When he is not stuck in the office, he enjoys tours of ports, terminals, and railyards.

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