U.S. West Coast ports want to boost drayage efficiency for the upcoming 2019 peak season. They aim to do so through greater use of appointment systems, extending gate hours and other changes to improve cargo and turn-time visibility.
The moves are a preemptive strike against the congestion that gripped marine terminals last year as import containers flooded North America. West Coast ports, including Vancouver, saw year-on-year import container volumes spike 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively, during October and December 2018. Each month saw total monthly inbound container volume reaching over 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).
The volume spikes led to well-documented cases of delays for truck drivers picking up and dropping off containers.
No similar volume surge is on the immediate horizon. Nonetheless, terminals are looking to move trucks more quickly this year.
In the middle of last year’s front-loading of imports, the Los Angeles and Long Beach terminals rolled out their first port-wide appointment systems for trucks, PierPass 2.0.
Debuting in November 2018, the system was a change from the original PierPass which just aimed to have trucks use off-peak hours for container moves.
The old system charged $72 per loaded TEU entering or leaving the port during regular day-time hours. The fee paid for evening gate hours for off-peak pick-ups and deliveries.
John Cushing, President of PierPass, said the original program was a success as 44 million truck moves were made in off-peak hours since the start of the original program.
But the unintended consequence was long lines of idling trucks sitting outside of container terminals waiting to pick up loads during the evening shift.
PierPass 2.0 “was pretty much driven by stakeholders saying they were looking for changes in the program,” Cushing said.
The new program charges a smaller fee of $31.52 per loaded TEU regardless of day or night visit. But trucks are now required to have an appointment with a two-hour arrival window. Now each of the 12 terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach have appointment systems, Cushing said, up from nine previously.
Cushing said PierPass 2.0 “still worked well” in spite of the higher than expected volumes due to the container surge.
Some drayage carriers have expressed concerned about using different systems at 12 separate terminals and the limited supply of appointment windows.
But Cushing said the majority of carriers that work the port call on four or fewer terminals, so a port-wide appointment system is not a priority.
As for appointment availability, it still depends on the number of containers at a particular terminal and how they are arranged.
But he said truck drivers are adjusting well to the system. While the initial rollout saw drivers miss between 20 percent and 30 percent of appointment windows, that has fallen down to about 10 percent to 15 percent.
“The terminals managed the high volume better with the new appointment system,” Cushing said.
The Port of Oakland did not see the level of congestion and wait times seen at other ports, said Mike Zampa, communications director for the port. But with vessels arriving in Oakland in response to the delays in offloading freight in Southern California, “it was certainly a challenge to keep up with the flow at times,” he said.
The introduction of appointment systems three years ago and additional off-peak gate hours at Oakland’s three international container terminals “were the keys to keeping us fluid,” Zampa said.
The off-peak gates are funded through a $30 fee per loaded container moved through the port. But Zampa said one shipper related to him about how “it’s the best $30 he has spent.”
“They’re so grateful that they can extend the workday,” Zampa said. The Oakland International Container Terminal, the port’s largest, now has between 25 percent and 35 percent of its truck transactions happening at night.
“If you come in at day time, you find much shorter lines than you used to,” Zampa said.
Zampa said Oakland plans to roll out real-time performance metrics, and shipper and carrier dashboards throughout 2019 to improve truck fluidity.
Andy Garcia, Executive Vice President of Oakland, California-based GSC Logistics, said the appointment and off-peak gates at Oakland have gone a long way in improving fluidity.
He said shippers used to face detention-related surcharges of $150 to $175 per container due to congestion at the Oakland terminals. But those charges have dropped to nil thanks to the appointment system.
He also said appointment systems at SSA Marine’s two terminals in Seattle, T18 and T46, have also gone a long way to easing congestion.
“The extended gate hours and appointment systems have proven to be extremely effective,” Garcia said. “It precludes a situation where you have 300 trucks waiting to get into a facility.”
Dustin Stoker, Chief Operating Officer of the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), said the other international terminals at Seattle and Tacoma are using a more informal “pre-advice” system for truckers to notify when they will be arriving at a terminal. But he says a second phase of terminal improvements will see “more appointment-based systems being rolled out.”
By the end of the year, Stoker said all trucks coming into the NWSA terminals should be equipped with RFID tags to “offer shippers better turn time visibility,” Stoker said.
NWSA is also looking to incent terminals to open in off-peak hours. So far, T18 is the only one to formally sign up for extended gate hours. But Stoker said the NWSA is “very hopeful that we will have at least one additional facility sign up during the year,” Stoker said.
Along with the appointment system and extended gate hours, T18 also makes extensive use of peel piles, where import containers for one shipper are segregated for faster pick-up.
Stoker said the use of peel piles has been “very successful and terminals and shippers are looking for ways they can increase use of them.”