Harbor truckers have complained for years that marine terminal gates are a source of lengthy yet preventable delays in the transportation supply chain.
And now a study sponsored by the Transportation Research Board concludes truckers do indeed experience frustrating delays at container terminals, but that many bottlenecks are a natural result of trade flows.
The National Cooperative Freight Research Program studied marine terminal operations at the ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach, Houston and New York-New Jersey and found that gate queues occur at all ports.
“There are no big differences north, south, east or west,” said Frank Harder, a principal at the Tioga Group, which conducted the study.
Long truck queues at the three ports, and by extension all major gateways, are caused by the peaking of container volumes tied to vessel arrivals, start and stop times at terminal gates and the infamous “trouble ticket.”
Terminals issue trouble tickets when truckers arrive with inaccurate or incomplete documentation resulting from carelessness of the shipper, customs broker or the trucking company itself. Trouble tickets affect only 5 percent of gate transactions but cause a disproportionate share of the delays at marine terminals.
The Transportation Research Board study could become a call to action for shippers, harbor truckers, marine terminals and ocean carriers. The Waterfront Coalition, representing retailers and shippers, expects to begin industry forums on the report this fall.
Robin Lanier, executive director of the Waterfront Coalition, said with 20,000 data points, the report corroborates trucker complaints. “You can’t ignore this study,” she said.
Lanier plans to use the study results to educate her members, and any non-member shippers that wish to attend the meetings, in starting a dialogue with transportation providers aimed at developing best practices.
Harder welcomes the involvement of shippers, saying they will add “discipline” to the effort because importers and exporters pay the transportation bills at the nation’s seaports.
However, injecting discipline into the process won’t be easy. Although ocean carriers are direct customers of the marine terminals, truckers and shippers have no business relationship with the facilities.
Lanier sees shippers using their influence with ocean carriers to press terminal operators to clean up the bad practices that cause truck delays at the terminal gates. “To actually make any changes, we have to find more shippers to get involved. We also have to get carrier buy-in, or nothing will be resolved,” she said.
The peaking of traffic at all container ports is the first issue to address. The study describes terminal operations as a series of traffic surges tied to vessel arrivals and shift changes.
Gate queues are longer on days when vessels arrive because truckers line up to pick up containers that are offloaded and clear Customs. Terminal operating practices may exacerbate the problem as the terminal turns attention to working the vessel and the container yard. Terminals often close off sections of the yard to truckers while they are working a vessel, increasing truck waiting time.
One possible remedy could be to reconfigure terminals. The study cites the APM terminal in Portsmouth, Va., where container stacks run perpendicular to the vessel. Containers are lifted off the vessel by gantry cranes and then moved to the back of the stacks where longshoremen using smaller lift equipment place containers on trucks. This way, vessel and shore operations do not conflict.
Trouble tickets can easily turn a 30- to 45-minute transaction into one lasting several hours. The lengthy delays skew the total average transaction times at container terminals and so give otherwise efficient operators a bad reputation.
Cleaning up trouble tickets would provide the biggest return on investment at marine terminals, but eradicating carelessness throughout the supply chain in the processing of documentation would be difficult to achieve because so many players are involved.
Trucking industry practices also contribute to long queues, and each port has its unique circumstances in this area. In New York-New Jersey, truckers from Canada arrive late at night and have nowhere to park so they line up at the terminals, Harder said. When the gates open at 8 a.m., the terminals are deluged.
The PierPass extended gates program at Los Angeles and Long Beach has pushed more than 40 percent of the traffic into the second shift each day, reducing daytime congestion but leading to jams when the fee ends at 6 p.m.
Ed DeNike, chief operating officer at SSA Marine, said federal hours-of-service rules also contribute to the problem. Because drivers are limited to 10 hours a day, they will straddle the two shifts, starting in late morning and working until they run out of time at about 10 p.m. Traffic then comes to a halt, and the terminal pays its night shift longshoremen for doing nothing until the shift ends at 3 a.m. A night shift costs the employer $40,000 to $50,000.
DeNike suggests trucking companies employ one shift of drivers during the day and one at night. “If we’re going to work two shifts, let’s work two full shifts,” he said.