Blank sailings causing problems for Southern California truckers

Blank sailings causing problems for Southern California truckers

Truckers say empty equipment returns and repositioning of chassis are the biggest issues they face in Southern California. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Truckers in Los Angeles-Long Beach are dealing with sporadic gate closures and equipment return problems as blank sailings disrupt vessel schedules, but terminal operators say they are giving as much notice as possible of operational changes considering they control neither the vessels nor the equipment.

Still, the problems being encountered by truckers don’t seem to be affecting performance at the largest US port complex, which recorded its best month ever in May, with average truck turn times of 59 minutes. That was the first time average visit times for all 12 terminals dropped below 60 minutes since the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA) began measuring turn times in 2013.

“In aggregate, the ports are doing better, but terminal by terminal there are good days and there are bad days,” Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, told JOC.com. 

“The biggest issue is equipment,” LaBar said, noting that the return of empty containers and repositioning of chassis continue to cause inefficiencies for truckers as they have since before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) began to interrupt supply chains in the trans-Pacific four months ago.

LaBar attributed the uneven performance among terminal operators to the dozens of blank sailings, with no consistency from week to week, that operators must contend with. 

The Southern California port complex in the second quarter is scheduled for 23 blank sailings, after experiencing 40 blank sailings in the first quarter, Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, told a port-sponsored webcast earlier this month.

Additionally, Los Angeles-Long Beach has probably suffered more than any other gateway during the US-China trade war, Seroka said. As retail sourcing shifts from China to Southeast Asia, East Coast ports are better positioned for that cargo because the routing of shipments via all-water services through the Suez Canal is more attractive. 

“That’s a permanent loss of 15 percent of our volume because of the trade war,” Seroka said.

Q1 volumes down 11 percent

Total laden containers in Los Angeles-Long Beach in the first quarter totaled 2,351,586 TEU, down 11 percent from the first quarter of 2019, according to PIERS, a JOC.com sister company within IHS Markit.

Marine terminals in Southern California generally run two shifts each day Monday through Thursday, and day shifts on Fridays and Saturdays. However, with the large decline in container volume, and more than 60 blank sailings so far this year, terminals have been canceling work shifts in order to reduce labor and equipment costs.

Port stakeholders earlier this year alerted the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) to issues such as difficulties in returning empties and the need for more advance notice on gate closures. FMC commissioner Rebecca Dye worked with Southern California ports, terminal operators, carriers, truckers, and labor to explore options for cooperation among the stakeholders through a port innovation team.

The FMC on Wednesday suggested a series of measures that focused largely on ocean carriers and terminals giving beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) and truckers more advanced notice of blank sailings and gate closures. Dye also suggested operational changes such as avoiding as much as possible redirecting the return of empty containers to terminals other than where they entered the port complex.

Individual terminal operators told JOC.com they are doing the best they can to respond to the needs of truckers, given they have no ownership or control of the vessels or the equipment.

Anthony Otto, president of Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT), said if a carrier that calls at LBCT decides to redirect the return of an empty container to another facility, but the trucker has already booked a time for the empty return, LBCT will honor the scheduled appointment.

“We will not turn down anything without 48 hours advance notice,” he said.

Yusen Terminals in Los Angeles has a similar policy of honoring appointments that truckers have already made, even if a carrier instructs Yusen to cut off empty returns for a particular voyage.

“We won’t change in mid-stream. It’s not right,” Yusen CEO Alan McCorkle said.

Truckers say some terminals have become more forward-looking in addressing the needs of the drayage community in the environment of blank sailings, but they need greater consistency throughout the harbor. 

“I would like to see at least three or four days’ notice for empty return changes,” said Peter Schneider, vice president of TGS Transportation. 

Also, when a trucker is redirected from one terminal to another, the second terminal will accept the container, but may not accept the accompanying chassis due to a business arrangement between shipping line and the equipment provider. The trucker will be told to return the chassis to another location, oftentimes at the trucker’s own expense. 

“It’s not my chassis. I shouldn’t have to pay,” Schneider said.

Turn times still vary widely among the terminals

The HTA’s average turn-time numbers for LA-LB show overall improvement in recent months, with the visit times declining from 71 minutes in March to 63 minutes in April and 59 minutes in May. However, performance at the individual terminal level still varies widely, from a high of 80 minutes at Total Terminals International to a low of 31 minutes at LBCT. 

Every terminal is unique in terms of the container volumes handled, the size of the terminal, and the operational style. Also, LaBar noted, terminals have been impacted differently by the number of blanked sailings, and the reliability of vessel scheduling on the various routes they service from North and Southeast Asia. 

“We’re dealing with these issues terminal by terminal,” he said.

LBCT is one of only two fully automated terminals in the US, and due to its physical layout and operational efficiencies afforded by automated cargo-handling equipment, it has been more trucker-friendly than other facilities since it launched the automation project three years ago, Otto said.

LBCT does not permit chassis storage at the facility, which mitigates chassis repositioning problems. Due to the perpendicular positioning of the container stacks between the vessel and the gate, truckers drop off and pick up containers at the gate end of the stacks rather than driving into the terminal and mixing with the yard tractors servicing the vessels. The terminal operating system allows inbound loads, outbound loads, and empties to be mixed in the same container stack, making dual transactions more common than at manual terminals, Otto noted.

Although LBCT has been subject to blank sailings similar to other terminals, turn times each month have been between 31 and 33 minutes all year, according to the HTA. 

“Our times really haven’t changed,” Otto said. “There are no real issues here.”

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.