Copyright 2007, Traffic World, Inc.
The cranes were dancing. Fifteen rail-mounted yard gantries stepped out briskly, first in unison, then in staggered pairs, to meet their partners at the middle of the container yard, then fall back again. It was done with precision that would make a caller at a square dance proud.
The computer-controlled choreography was part of the Sept. 7 official opening of the new APM Terminals International facility in Portsmouth, Va.
The Virginia terminal is the largest of a new crop of container terminals that are opening or under development around the continent, from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Jacksonville, Fla. Industry experts say APM has taken a step in terminal efficiency and automation that others in North America will have to follow.
"The opening of the APM terminal has raised the bar," said Bill Coffey, a port consultant and former executive with Sea-Land Service. When companies build new terminals or rebuild old ones, they will be measured against the Virginia terminal''s standard.
"It''s going to be a lot more difficult for someone to say they''re going to build a plain old wheeled terminal with acres of parking lot as far as the eye can see," Coffey said. "What APM has done is a long-overdue step in the direction that first-tier terminal operators in Asia and Europe are already taking."
The question is whether existing terminals will be able to draw on the new model. Until now, U.S. operators have benefited from an abundance of cheap land, and have tolerated per-acre productivity rates that are far below those of ports in Asia and Europe.
"Rather than running terminals efficiently, you kept spreading out. I think that time is over. It''s been over for quite some time, but people haven''t realized it," Coffey said.
Today, port real estate, especially in urban areas, is at a premium as the maritime industry vies with commercial and residential real estate developers for prized land.
It took APM three years and $450 million to build the new facility''s first phase on 230 of 576 acres fronting the Elizabeth River about 1.7 miles downstream from the company''s existing Portsmouth terminal. Officials noted that the Virginia terminal is the largest privately owned container terminal in the United States, and the largest private investment in Hampton Roads history.
APM''s old terminal in Portsmouth will be phased out as its new neighbor swings into operation.
APM took the environment into consideration at the Portsmouth terminal. The company preserved 110 acres of woodland on the site. APM planted nearly 110,000 wetland plants in a lagoon next to the dock, and contributed $5.3 million to cleaning up the Elizabeth River to offset the effect of dredging a 50-foot channel to the main 55-foot-deep channel at Hampton Roads.
Six manned container cranes along the 4,000-foot dock can handle four vessels at a time. The terminal connects to the outside world by way of a new interchange with Virginia Highway 164, a project that cost state taxpayers $29 million.
A new 3.3-mile railroad spur operated by Commonwealth Railway will connect with Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation. The railroad right-of-way is in the median of Highway 164. That means no Portsmouth citizens will be routed from their homes, according to Mayor James W. Holley III.
Holley said that in the early stages of planning, some people complained about the greater inconvenience that would come with larger volumes of containers on the highway, "but with inconvenience comes compensation. (APM) is the partner we always envisioned would be here - no smokestacks, no odors."
The new terminal is a hybrid of automated and non-automated operations, said Peter Vandermat, vice president of JWD Group, an Oakland, Calif.-based design firm.
While the rail-mounted yard gantries are operated by remote control, containers move from dockside to the head of the yard by manned vehicles. The automated yard gantries are the most prominent feature of a system that officials expect to handle 1 million TEUs in a year or so, and 2.1 million when a second construction phase is completed in 2017.
Supporting the onsite equipment is a container tracking system developed by Navis, an Oakland, Calif., firm that has developed operating systems for terminals throughout the world. Frank Pisano, vice president of TraPac, Los Angeles, said that the tracking system can pinpoint the location of each container so a yard worker doesn''t waste time cruising the stacks to find a box visually.
"The system can send a work order directly to a gantry operator, who locates and pulls the container from the stack, loads in on a truck and moves on to his next assignment," Pisano said. "That doubles the productivity of a piece of equipment."
The Virginia terminal is designed to segregate yard transport from highway transport. Arrival and departure gates have 12 lanes each. Each rail gantry serves five parking slots on the inland end of the yard. To pick up a container, a driver backs his truck into a slot, swipes a card to identify himself, and the gantry automatically delivers the right box.
APM''s automation effort has been given a thumbs-up from organized labor. International Longshoremen''s Association leaders said they favor automation, as long as they have a secure hold on the existing jobs. Richard Hughes Jr., ILA president, lists technology as the top issue facing the ILA. But he said the union wants to do its part to make ports more efficient while ensuring the preservation of the union''s work jurisdiction.
Coffey said further port automation is inevitable and essential. "Some think that automation means you run a terminal with virtually no people," Coffey said. "I don''t think that''s a particularly desirable or attainable objective, if anyone even has it. I think there are a lot of steps that can be taken, and will have to be because otherwise you''re not going to be able to run a terminal when you''re growing 5, 6 or 7 percent a year."