Terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach demonstrated this month their ability to handle record container exchanges in a single vessel call. Now the challenge will be to seamlessly orchestrate the landside handoff of containers as calls by mega-ships become increasingly common.
Truckers told JOC.com that the 12 container terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach are improving their gate operations, as evidenced by a record port-wide turn time average of 59 minutes in May. But, truckers say, there are still inconsistencies from terminal to terminal, and even from day to day, depending on the volume of containers handled, which has been thrown into flux by the many blank sailings that have disrupted vessel schedules.
Total Terminals International said in early June it completed what was a world record 16,500 lifts from the Mediterranean Shipping Co. Sveva in Long Beach. Two weeks later, APM Terminals in Los Angeles reported it upped the record to handle 18,465 container moves from the MSC Isabella.
Because container lifts involve mostly 40-foot containers, APM noted that the exchange from the MSC Isabella was the equivalent of 34,263 TEU. The MSC Isabella has a listed capacity of 23,656 TEU, while the MSC Sveva is listed at 18,400 TEU. Vessels of 18,000 TEU-plus are common today in the Asia-Europe trades, but are not yet in regular use in the trans-Pacific.
Fewer port calls in Pacific Southwest services
Los Angeles-Long Beach is somewhat unique as a port complex in that Pacific Southwest services make at most two port calls before returning to Asia — Los Angeles-Long Beach and Oakland. In the case of the MSC Isabella and Sveva, the terminals did 100 percent discharge and reload in Southern California before the ships returned to Asia. As a result, container exchanges per vessel call in Southern California are much higher than in most trade lanes around the world, where vessels make multiple port calls on each voyage.
The Southern California ports five years ago tested their ability to handle mega-ships on the vessel side of the operation with the arrival of the 18,000 TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin. They were not able to handle a fully profiled vessel of that size because the ports at the time did not have enough super-post-Panamax cranes with a height of at least 165 feet.
“The big thing about big ships is the cranes,” said Ed DeNike, president of SSA Containers, which worked the Benjamin Franklin with Panamax-size cranes that were not tall enough to handle a mega-ship fully profiled with containers stacked 10 to 11 rows high on deck. DeNike said SSA Marine has been adding super-post-Panamax cranes at its terminals on the West Coast, and its recent orders have been for cranes with a height of 175 feet.
Now that a number of terminals in Southern California have super-post-Panamax cranes, terminal operators say carriers feel more confident in deploying mega-ships on their Pacific Southwest services as needed. MSC did that in March to vacate a backlog of empty containers that had built up in Los Angeles-Long Beach because of blank sailings. An APM spokesperson noted that vessels such as the MSC Isabella are already positioned in Asian ports for the Asia-Europe services, so they can be easily redeployed in trans-Pacific services.
Mega-ships require more cranes, better planning
APM worked the MSC Isabella with eight to nine ship-to-shore cranes on eight shifts over the six days the vessel was at berth. Each crane averaged 30 container lifts per hour, APM said in a statement. Terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach normally work five or six cranes against the 10,000 to 14,000 TEU vessels that call at the port complex.
Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said the ability of APM and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to handle more than 18,000 container moves from a single vessel sends a message to shippers and carriers that the port is “big-ship ready” and can handle increasingly bigger container lifts.
Handling a container exchange that is 50 to 60 percent larger than the normal exchange of about 10,000 lifts per vessel requires more pre-planning of not only ship-to-shore cranes, but also yard space and yard equipment and coordinating labor needs with the ILWU, said Steven Trombley, APM’s managing director at Pier 400.
“The Pier 400 operations team created extra yard space to handle the 18,465 container moves, and carefully coordinated a comprehensive terminal strategy,” Trombley said. He also noted the MSC Isabella generated eight intermodal train moves, compared with six from smaller vessels.
Coordinating the gate operations with truck and rail operations has become a larger challenge for terminal operators as the container exchanges become bigger. The ports say their complex regularly processes 30,000 truck moves a day.
Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, said even a normal-sized container surge creates issues as the terminal discharges inbound containers and reloads the vessel with export loads or empties. Equipment shortages and dislocations and the return of empty containers strain the facility where the vessel calls, as well as neighboring terminals.
“The biggest issue is equipment,” LaBar said. When experiencing a surge, a terminal may shut its gates to returns of empty containers, or may encounter problems in receiving chassis because of business arrangements between the ocean carrier and a chassis provider. Such problems result in wasted time and added costs for truckers, he said.
A Federal Maritime Commission innovation team comprised of port stakeholders throughout Southern California issued a report in mid-June with suggestions for coordinating efforts among shippers, truckers, ocean carriers, and terminals to improve supply chain fluidity. The main conclusion was that carriers and terminals must give beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) and truckers more advance notice of operational decisions that could potentially disrupt the logistics chain.