Cutting through the fog

Cutting through the fog

Speed is not the only factor in logistics, or even the most important one. Nothing illustrates that better than the Asia route to the East Coast via the Panama Canal.

Hong Kong to New York via the Panama Canal is five to seven days longer than via West Coast ports and rail landbridge, says Kevin Mack, vice president of national accounts for Hanjin Logistics. Yet cargo pours into the Port of New York and New Jersey from China.

This is partly the result of diversion and port diversification strategies following Sept. 11 and the 2002 West Coast port shutdown. But if shippers know where their cargo is and are confident it will arrive on schedule, they can plan for the longer transit time and will often use it to their advantage, using the free storage on ships instead of expensive warehouse space.

It is this calculation that several U.S. river ports, including Pittsburgh, Memphis, Baton Rouge and others, are trying to tap into as they seek to introduce intermodal into their mix of business, which currently is dominated by bulk cargoes. The absence of speed associated with barges as they ply the rivers, these ports believe, can be overcome for certain cargoes by reliability and real-time data.

Yet reliability on the rivers is not something that will be achieved easily, as was clear from last week's Smart Rivers 21 symposium organized by the forward-thinking Port of Pittsburgh Commission and its executive director, James McCarville. The positive side of the story is that as short-sea shipping policy continues to languish in Washington, concrete steps are being taken to address issues of reliability on the rivers - steps directly aimed at the potential offered by intermodal service.

A case in point is the problem of fog. In the spring and fall when the potential for disparities between air and water temperature is greatest, fog conditions often will bring river locks to a standstill, sometimes for as many as 24 hours at a time. Towboat pilots still use sight in the form of crew members stationed on the forwardmost barges to slip their massive barge tows into the narrow lock chambers. If they can't see the locks, they're not going anywhere, and lengthy barge jams at both ends of the locks quickly develop.

Hundreds of hours are lost to fog each year, with one estimate pegging the cost to barge companies at $300 million a year. Such delays, which barge lines can't anticipate, are tolerated by shippers of low-value bulk commodities but are directly at odds with the demands for schedule integrity that are at the heart of intermodal transportation. "If you can't tell the customer with certainty when the container will arrive, you have a problem," said Michael Neal, director of marine data services for the Boeing unit Jeppesen, which supplies flight navigational data to airlines.

But in a sign that river ports are serious about overcoming the obstacles to intermodal, this problem is being confronted. A cooperative venture involving Jeppesen, the Port of Pittsburgh, Concept 2 Solution and the Army Corps of Engineers is testing an advanced positioning system, Smart Lock, that will give towboat pilots readings that are accurate to 1 foot. The pilots are a conservative lot, knowing that the Coast Guard will hold them accountable for accidents and could strip them of their licenses, but the idea is that as they become confident in the technology, they'll use it, and fog delays will decline. "We have 18 locks and dams in our district alone, so we have an incentive to solve this problem," McCarville said. "This has the potential to change the whole perception of reliability on the inland waterways."

The project has other goals as well, including improving safety and the quality of real-time data associated with river cargo movements, the latter an area in dire need of improvement. But the basic point is reliability, an issue that will be helped by projects such as Smart Lock, but not completely solved by it.

It's no secret that the nation's locks are in a state of disrepair because Congress fails to fund projects at the rate they're needed, and lock shutdowns still happen more often than they should. But with highways becoming congested, drivers in perpetually short supply, and gas prices at ridiculous levels, the waterways as a conduit for intermodal traffic are becoming more attractive by the day.

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.