US Ports Aim for European Efficiency

As waterfront land available for terminal development becomes scarcer and costlier, U.S. ports are beginning to resemble high-productivity ports in Asia and Europe.

Achieving greater throughput per acre is now the goal of terminal operators in high-volume ports. Until recently, marine terminal operations in the U.S. were designed to control labor costs, Mark Sisson, associate vice president and senior port planner/analyst at AECOM, told the Pacific Ports Clean Air Collaborative Conference Wednesday in Los Angeles.

This was especially true on the West Coast where terminal operators stored import containers on chassis or kept stacks to four containers high in order to minimize re-handling of the boxes by high-paid longshoremen.

By contrast, many Asian ports were built in urban areas where the opportunity costs of the land are quite high and the cost of land far exceeds the cost of labor. Asian ports have consistently racked up throughput-per-acre numbers that are three to four times the productivity numbers of U.S. ports, Sisson said.

Today, with vessels carrying 8,000 20-foot containers, or more, calling regularly at U.S. ports, and available land at major gateways scarce or non-existent, terminal operators are focusing increasingly on per-acre throughput and higher productivity that can be achieved only with automation.

The first U.S. terminal to be built on the foreign model was the APM facility in Portsmouth, Va. That terminal is designed with container stacks running perpendicular to the vessel so rail-mounted gantry cranes can move containers efficiently from the stacks to the back end of the facility where truckers pick up the boxes and pull them from the terminal.

The next step in improving terminal productivity in the U.S. could be the introduction of automated guided vehicles, Sisson said. The AGVs are driverless yard hostlers that move containers from the vessel apron to the container stacks.

U.S. ports will most likely never achieve the extremely high productivity figures of Asian terminals because their operations are inherently different. Export-oriented Asian ports often have a high volume of containers that are transshipped from smaller ports in the region to mother vessels for shipment to the U.S. or Europe. Container moves at the ports are counted twice.

In ports such as Hong Kong, many containers are transferred directly from barges to ocean-going vessels. The containers never touch the terminal, but they are counted in the facility’s gross container handle.

Nevertheless, the realities of today’s container trade dictate the need for denser terminal operations and higher productivity at U.S. ports, Sisson said.

-- Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @billmongelluzzo.

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