Container terminals improve thanks to better processes, land use and IT.
Several U.S. container ports were under severe pressure a year ago because of cargo spikes associated with the new influx of bigger vessels and a months-long labor dispute between dockworkers and management that hurt productivity, ultimately causing congestion on the West Coast and ripple effects at some ports on the East Coast.
The biggest slowdowns in operational tempo were experienced by the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, New York/New Jersey and Norfolk. Terminal configurations and operational processes were developed in prior decades to handle much smaller vessels and cargo volumes.
The crisis jolted the international freight sector and port authorities into action to address systemic inefficiencies in port operations that had not adequately adapted to the changing dynamics of the ocean transportation industry. Increased collaboration, high-level coordination by port directors and modest growth due to soft trade conditions have significantly reduced cargo backlogs in container yards and truck gates, but challenges persist.
When the global economy picks up, which ports will be in a better position to handle the extra business without major delays that penalize motor carriers and shippers in terms of lost productivity, idle inventory and potential lost sales?
West Coast. Port communities have quickly come together to make operational improvements that have helped smooth out cargo flows.
Positive new initiatives that are making a difference include the creation of a regional gray chassis pool to simplify equipment interchanges, “free-flow” programs that reduce cargo handling and speed pick-ups by shuttle trucks, and off-dock yards where containers are stored or sorted for transfer to truck drivers.
Free-flow involves the segregation of containers into blocks for high-volume destinations, so trucks can grab any container off the top rather than requesting a specific container be pulled from within the stacks, which involves much more sorting. The system works best with large shippers or truckers that have many containers to retrieve.
Free-flow is still used on a limited basis, but has helped terminals reduce truck turn-times about 30 percent and lines outside gates can be counted in the minutes rather than hours, according to port officials in Southern California. The new system has helped drayage drivers quadruple the number of revenue-making turns they can do in a day.
New drop yards work well in combination with free-flow. The Port of Long Beach is planning to make 150 acres of vacant property into a permanent overflow yard after a pilot program worked well. Other companies also operate near-dock yards where containers can be relayed to trucks serving warehouses in the outer Inland Empire and the Port of Los Angeles plans to expand relay yard capacity in the near future, officials say.
Another free-flow enabler is a technology platform from a company called Cargomatic that uses an app to match port truckers with loads. Drivers can pick up the first box in a designated pile and then get instructions where to deliver it on their phone. Use is still limited, but it shows promise as a way to improve communication and coordination in container transfers across multiple terminals.
Another technology being tested in Southern California enables shippers to exchange empty import containers with nearby exporters in the field, saving both parties from tying up truck and terminal resources by moving empty boxes to and from the port.
At the Port of Los Angeles, terminals and ocean carriers often coordinate where to dock a vessel based on ship size and berth availability.
None of these developments would have happened without the new, proactive role taken by the Los Angeles and Long Beach port authorities. New directors Gene Seroka and Jon Slangerup, respectively, arrived in 2014 from the private sector with a mindset that landlord ports could go beyond managing customer leases and actually facilitate market-based changes by bringing together all stakeholders to jointly develop congestion solutions.
Several joint working groups were established in 2015 to coordinate operational improvements.
The San Pedro Bay port authorities are also doing a much more extensive job of capturing data on chassis movements, railcar availability, truck turn-times and other metrics and standardizing them across terminals to get a better idea of where pinch points exist. Eventually, the goal is to gather advance information from all parties in the system in a way that can be harmonized and shared to allow better management of truck flows, railroad loadings, and shipment visibility to cargo owners.
Ports are doing what they can to better align terminal footprints to the new vessels, but wholesale consolidation of terminals could take a long time because of existing leases with terminal operators that may not be interested in being bought out of their leaseholds.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are working to maximize land-use by knocking down fences within terminals, repurposing underutilized land and providing larger container storage yards.
The Port of Los Angeles is about a year away from completing a major expansion of the TraPac terminal, which will have the most automated container-handling equipment in the world and on-dock rail for the first time.
The Middle Harbor redevelopment at the Port of Long Beach combines two existing terminals into one, and includes a host of other upgrades.
The Northwest Seaport Alliance of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle in April committed to spend $141 million to improve the Husky Terminal so it can accommodate up to two 18,000-TEU containerships simultaneously. Two berths will be straightened and reconstructed to create a 2,960-foot pier with a structure capable of accommodating four super post-panamax cranes. In addition, the Husky container yard will be reconfigured and a new gate complex constructed.
The seaport alliance is also preparing to make capital improvements to Terminal 5 in Seattle to accommodate big ships. Planned improvements will allow the superstructure to hold heavier cranes with a longer outreach and provide deeper drafts to simultaneously handle two 18,000-TEU vessels.
Northeast And Mid-Atlantic. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was the first to convene a stakeholder working group to find solutions following gridlock in the summer of 2013 and following winter. The group came up with a list of 23 recommendations, and a task force, the Council on Port Performance (CPP), was set up to implement them.
“I think we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go,” John Nardi, president of the New York Shipping Association, said. “Some terminals still experience some intermittent congestion, based on vessel schedules.”
The CPP’s top priority is the formation of an interoperable chassis pool so truckers can use them to handle containers from multiple shipping lines in multiple terminals. The three major equipment lessors provisionally agreed on an equipment-sharing model and originally targeted a July 2015 startup, but the system has yet to get off the ground.
The sticking point appears to be jurisdiction over repairs by unionized longshoremen. Dockworkers want to retain the business even though most chassis are no longer owned by ocean carriers and are often stored outside port property. Negotiations between intermodal equipment providers and the International Longshoremen’s Association are ongoing, Nardi said.
Nonetheless, the chassis situation has greatly improved because the leasing companies have increased their stocks, repaired other units that were previously idle, and added about 150 mechanics, he said.
Several marine terminals are preparing to implement appointment systems for truckers during the next several months, a change that is not universally cheered by motor carriers that could miss out on loads if they can’t hit their arrival window.
Global Terminal, and others, have extended hours for truck gates on weekdays and even opened on weekends, when necessary.
The port authority has implemented its Terminal Information Port System, a central portal that allows truckers to check on the status of their containers at any terminal, instead of having to look at each terminal’s own website. It also enables the user to find the booking status for exports, so the carrier knows when to deliver an empty container to a shipper. The system is a precursor for any truck management or port-wide appointment system that might be adopted in the future.
The hiring of about 900 longshoremen and clerks in the past two years, including mechanics, has significantly helped terminals handle cargo faster, Nardi said.
A major problem that still needs to be addressed, he said, is the unwillingness of truckers and shippers to take advantage of all the available terminals hours each day. Truckers tend to bunch in the morning to get a head start on their day, but a better approach, which could be addressed by appointment systems, is to flatten out traffic by getting more drivers to make deliveries in the afternoon.
Shippers need to keep their warehouses open at night so drayage carriers that utilize the extended gate hours have someplace to drop their load, Nardi said. Achieving that will require coordination of the supply chain from the terminal to the warehouse.
“The one thing that concerns me is if there’s a significant shake up of the alliances again that results in different patterns of freight. It takes a long time for community to figure out the new patterns,” Nardi said.
“If there’s another shake up we’re going to experience a similar impact like before. We need to communicate what those changes mean to the community on a terminal-by-terminal basis,” he added.
Further south, the Port of Virginia has taken a series of steps to speed up container flows and increase capacity. In 2014, it reopened the idle Portsmouth Terminal to serve as a spillover facility, mostly for smaller vessels, when its two primary terminals are crowded. Other changes include extending weekend hours for terminal gates, construction of a new asphalt pad to store rail-bound containers at the Virginia International Gateway terminal and separate them from containers scheduled to be hauled by trucks so yard cranes don’t have as much restacking work.
The state plans to contribute $350 million to modernize the Norfolk International Terminal with semi-automated rail gantry cranes like those that operate at VIG, which is scheduled to undergo an expansion under terms of a new lease with the private sector owners of the facility.