From New York to Norfolk, Va., and Los Angeles-Long Beach to Vancouver, British Columbia, port congestion that spills out into the real world in the form of truck lines, pollution, supply chain delays and occasional violence is a rapidly escalating problem affecting foreign trade. The problem defies conventional explanations – rapid containerized trade growth is no longer the case – and conventional solutions such as building new terminals, which take years and don’t address the immediate challenges of congestion that confront ports, customers and local communities.
The solutions, rather, are to be found deep in the weeds, in unglamorous details such as trucker trouble tickets, driver training and lunch hour gate closures.
In one of the most powerful presentations at the JOC’s TPM Conference in Long Beach, Calif., this month, Tioga Group’s Dan Smith, in a presentation entitled “Fixing Port Drayage,” made it clear why ports are experiencing drayage delays, what the cost of the problem is -- $300 million a year in the U.S. – and how it can be solved.
The solution starts, he said, with trouble tickets. About 5 percent of truck-borne deliveries or pickups at marine terminals are unable to be completed because of faulty paperwork. Each one results in an hour-long delay, Smith said, citing data Tioga has studied. The problem is compounded because other truckers must wait helplessly as the issues with the truck at the gate are resolved, their engines idling while valuable time is lost for truckers usually paid by the trip.
“If you haul for a major importer, you probably don’t get many trouble tickets, but you wait in line behind the drivers who do,” he said.
The solution is to deal with the problem in advance, before the truck arrives at the terminal.
“There is no way that we can continue to let bad transactions into the lines, the pedestals, the gates and the terminals,” Smith said. “Most transactions are completed in a reasonable time, but the exceptions ... are killing us.”
Truckers get turned away from terminal gates for several reasons related to faulty documentation, including unknown container numbers, bookings that aren’t on file, bill of ladings being held by line operator, booking type required or the trucker contract with the line has expired, Smith said. As soon as an error is discovered, the delays start mounting.
“To resolve these problems, the driver gets on his cell phone, calls the dispatcher, who calls the customer, who calls the ocean carrier and everyone waits while the customer and the carrier work it out,” Smith said. “Many, if not most, of these issues are between the ocean carrier and the customer, with the trucker and the terminal caught in the middle.”
Most exceptions are IT process exceptions, not equipment problems or operational errors, he said. He cited systems that, for example, incorrectly tally booking totals, making it possible that box No. 10 in a 10-box booking arrives at a terminal, but looks like box No. 11 and gets a trouble ticket. Another scenario may give every box in a booking a trouble ticket because one of them is holding hazardous materials, he said.
The bottom line is this: “There is no reason why any transaction with those problems should ever reach the gate, much less the terminal. Sending a driver in with those types of problems is a recipe for failure,” he said. Thus, “make sure you have a clean transaction before you put the trucker and the driver to work. And that’s a message for the customers and carriers, even more than the truckers.”
A related problem is training. Because of tighter security at terminals following the September 11 terrorist attacks, it’s harder for trucking companies to arrange for novice drivers to accompany more experienced ones. As a result, many exceptions originate with inexperienced drivers.
“Ride-alongs and familiarization trips used to be the norm, but security rules are preventing that from happening in some ports. Instead, new drivers break rules and get sent to safety classes, where they learn what they should have been told in the first place. Simply put, drivers who visit the port less often get a lot more trouble tickets and cause delays for everyone,” Smith said, referring to extensive data that statistically links inexperience to trouble tickets.
In other words, he said, it all boils down to “keeping the bad transactions out of the lines.”