Synchronizing the port

Synchronizing the port

What if the handling of containers could be organized so that a terminal operator could transfer inbound containers from ship to intermodal train, all in the proper sequence, and synchronize that task with the stowage of outbound containers on the ship?

It's a tantalizing prospect, and port consultant John Vickerman says the Agile Port Technology concept could expand port capacity without the need of additional acreage. He said the development, which the Defense Department has been encouraging since the Persian Gulf War, could have as big an impact on container shipping as the introduction of double-stack trains in the 1980s.

The key to the new system is integrating the information in a ship's stowage plan with the railroad's consist, or compilation of data about which containers are in which railcar. By aligning the data between the ship, the terminal and the train, containers can be unloaded and loaded in the sequence that optimizes handling speed and the positioning of each container for unloading again at destination.

The concept was tested last summer at the Port of Tacoma. A Hyundai Merchant Marine container vessel was unloaded and loaded twice at the Washington United Terminal, first on June 28 using normal procedures and then again a week later using the experimental concept.

"Under the old system, the containers are unloaded onto a pier and then sit there until they can be loaded onto a train," said Vickerman, principal of TranSystems Corp., the transportation consulting firm that designed and organized the demonstration. "The test allowed us to reconfigure the containers and deploy them directly onto the train."

In the test's first phase, cranes discharged 260 containers from one hatch of a Hyundai ship to railcars on a spur about 100 yards away. Each crane lifted a one-way load, transferring a container to a chassis then returning empty to pluck the next container. When the hatch was cleared, it was restowed, one cycle at a time with containers that had been removed earlier from the same railcars. This normal sequence was staged to establish a benchmark dwell time.

In the second phase of the test, the ship's containers were stowed in the proper order for discharge to the chassis and immediate transfer to railcars. After enough containers had been discharged from the ship, each crane made a dual cycle, moving one box to a chassis and returning with another for stowage on the ship. The trucks carried the container to the railcar and then returned with another container to load on the vessels. In the test, the cranes made dual cycles on 80 to 85 percent of their moves, far above the normal 20 percent at the terminal.

Containers in the test spent an average of 1.5 days at the terminal, compared with the typical 3.5 days. The test showed that Washington United Terminal could increase its throughput by 146 percent, with no need for additional acreage, if all the carriers adopted the new technology.

"We proved that you can double the capacity of a terminal by integrating the information from the ship and the train to manage the flow of containers from ship to train," Vickerman said. "It proves carriers will be able to manage the flow of containers to align them with intermodal connections onshore."

He said the meshing of information by carriers, terminal operators and railroads would have a side benefit: improved port security. "You would always know where a container is from the moment it leaves a port overseas until it arrives at its eventual destination," he said.

While acknowledging the success of the Tacoma experiment, skeptics question whether the technology would work as well at other ports, such as Los Angeles and Long Beach, where many import containers are trucked to local destinations or to nearby transloading centers.

Seventy percent of Tacoma's container traffic arrives or departs on double-stack trains to or from points in the eastern United States. "The regular process for westbound cargo for Asia is for the train to come in several days before the ship. The boxes are unloaded, trucked and stacked in the yard where they sit around for several days until inbound ships can be unloaded before they can be loaded," said Jeannie Beckett, the port's senior director.

Mike Lingerfelt, president of Washington United Terminals in Tacoma and California United Terminals in Long Beach, both of which are owned by Hyundai Merchant Marine, said the technology would work at other ports. "To be able to transfer containers directly to and from rail would be a tremendous improvement," he said. "It would enable us to handle the significant volume growth that we expect in the same footprint we have today. I believe the concept is at a point in time when it will become the solution to the problems of port and rail congestion."

The test indicated that synchronizing inbound and outbound container moves could reduce costs per move by 40 percent. "It's a factor of velocity," Lingerfelt said. "If we can increase the velocity and we can do it with the same equipment and labor we've got, then we're reducing our costs. The more velocity we can put through the terminals using the same pipeline, the more money we can make."

International Longshore and Warehouse Union clerks who participated in the tests used handheld computers to time and evaluate the flow of containers. Vickerman and Lingerfelt praised the ILWU's cooperation. "I want to give full credit to Jim Spinosa," the ILWU's president, Vickerman said.

Lingerfelt said United's two terminals "are already very close" to the system that was tested, but that additional efficiencies are possible. The key, he said, will be to "get the right planning, both at the port of origin and at the intermodal rail facility." A ship loading containers at Kaohsiung, Taiwan, would have to coordinate its ship stowage with the railroad's loading of its stack trains. "Can we get the railroads and the carriers to configure their loads in conjunction with each other?" Beckett asked. "Right now each piece of the logistics chain does it as it works best for them."

That kind of coordination will be the next step in the testing of the Agile Ports system sometime next year. In the next test, one of the Class 1 railroads, none of which participated in the first test, will try to mesh their data with that of Hyundai, Washington United Terminals and the ILWU at Tacoma. Vickerman is talking with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads about staging a full-scale test that would "squeeze more cost out of the intermodal system. By cutting the dwell time in half we can double the capacity of a terminal."

There also are other obstacles to overcome. For example, what if a shipper decides in mid-voyage to switch destinations? Vickerman said system planners "built into the system the assumption that diversions are going to happen more and more frequently. Obviously, the sooner a shipper lets the carrier know it's diverting cargo, the more the dwell time can be reduced."

Vickerman acknowledged that the transportation industry is skeptical about the system. "About half the industry says it can work, but the other half says we'll need to get more data-point development."

The biggest hurdle is to get the different elements of the global supply chain working together, Lingerfelt said. "As the idea gains momentum and the ports fill up, especially in Southern California, someone is going to have to step up to the plate," he said. "It would have to be an alliance, the New World Alliance, of which Hyundai is a member, or a solo carrier of the size of a Maersk to make the decision to do it."