Two initiatives that allow truckers to submit processing documents in advance of container pickups and deliveries at the port of Montreal aim to further cut truck turn times, which have already declined by nearly 25 percent in the last year.
Termont Montréal Inc., which operates two of the port’s four main terminals, began a pilot program in early March allowing trucking companies to make appointments up to three days in advance of a pickup or delivery at the operator’s Maisonneuve and Viau terminals. The system, according to a handbook distributed to truckers participating in the test period, “aims to provide the trucking community with a new, faster and easier way to book transactions.”
Montreal Gateway Terminals, the operator of the port’s two other main terminals, Cast and Racine, said it is planning to install a system based on optical character recognition (OCR) in the third quarter of this year. The OCR system would “allow road carriers to do pre-visit transactions, which should further improve turnaround times and keep the gates fluid,” said Michael Fratianni, the company’s president and CEO of Montreal Gateway Terminals Partnership.
The two initiatives are the latest effort by the four terminals to keep pace with the rapid volume growth at the port. Total throughput at Montreal grew 10.3 percent in 2017 and 3.3 percent in 2018, according to data from the port. Imports through Montreal increased 3.1 percent year over year in 2018, while exports grew 3.3 percent.
The initiatives were largely triggered by severe congestion at the port for several weeks in late 2017 and early 2018, due to the confluence of rising cargo volumes and factors including vessel bunching (when ships arrive at the same time), the effects of severe weather, and a shortage of truck drivers. Truck turn times, which grew to several hours during the worst of the congestion, stood at an average of 47 minutes in March, down from 61 minutes in the same month a year ago, according to port figures.
Corey Darbyson, director of Transport Dsquare, a Montreal-based trucking company and participant in the Termont pilot, said instead of simply sending his trucks into the port he can now book ahead.
At present, truckers taking part in the pilot can skip the regular line of trucks into the terminal and enter through a special gate. The longer-term benefit, Darbyson said, is that “shippers will be able to see, when the peaks are [and] what is booked,” and drayage operators “will know ahead of time when the port will be busy.”
Julien Dubreuil, general manager for Termont’s two terminals, called the initiative a “pre-registering system more than an appointment system.”
Similar to mobile applications rolled out in recent years by railroads looking to increase cargo fluidity at inland intermodal terminals, the Termont system allows truckers and dispatchers to register their transactions in advance online and receive a barcode that can be displayed on a cellphone and read on arrival at the terminal gate. The system enables the trucker and terminal to “clear out any issues there might be with the booking and/or container” before the trucker arrives, to allow the truck to pass through the gate quickly, Dubreuil said.
Truckers can pick an appointment time as they register, and in the future the terminal expects to show the expected traffic volume at all times to allow truckers to avoid peak periods. But unlike a mandatory appointment system such as those being instituted in terminals at the Port of New York and New Jersey, Tremont does not prevent trucks entering the gate if they arrive without an appointment or outside their given appointment time.
In addition, the terminal at present does not use the system to prepare the container in advance of the trucker’s arrival, as some appointment systems do. “That is a possibility we want to explore in the future,” Dubreuil said.
Extended efficiency efforts
The two efforts to speed up the gate entry process follow the testing and implementation in September of an extended gate program under which the gates of all the port’s four main terminals are open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, instead of closing at 2.30 p.m. as in the past. The 17-hour day is funded by a flat $35 per container fee.
The port in February also began publishing real-time data on port performance on its website, offering greater transparency into port fluidity than many ports. The data includes monthly import dwell times, as well as figures for vessel schedule integrity, berth productivity, and truck turn times.
As turn times have declined, dwell times have also shifted. The average rail dwell time was 5.5 days in March, down from six days in January, but still above the average dwell time of 4-4.5 days at the end of 2018 and 3.3 days in March 2018.
Port officials say that despite the evident benefits to turn times that come from improving fluidity, they are still struggling to persuade a greater number of truckers to shift their routine and and pick up and deliver cargo in the evening hours. Fratianni said in January that 78 percent of truck traffic was still being handled between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., and the port was seeking to increase the volume handled after 3 p.m. to 35 percent.
“At this stage, we do not see the need for an appointment system,” Fratianni told JOC.com Tuesday. “Service levels are good, although we would like to see greater usage of our evening gates which remain stubbornly underutilized. An appointment system would help with pushing deliveries to the evening, but I think a collaborative approach is the way to go.”
Darbyson said turn times at the port have improved, but one problem with late afternoon and early evening hours is that traffic on city streets is heavier, making it “the worst time to deliver any freight.” In addition, area warehouses are not open later, which means cargo can’t be delivered if it’s picked up after hours, he said.