Truck turn times at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in September were the fastest they’ve been in almost six years, as the worst-performing terminals significantly improved performance and the percentage of visit times in excess of two hours was sharply reduced.
Nine of the 12 container terminals registered improved truck turn times in last month, some dramatically, which helped pull the port-wide average down to 71 minutes from 77 minutes in August.
“The 71-minute average across both harbors is the fastest since January of 2014,” said Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA), which compiled the data under its monthly truck mobility report.
The average truck turn time has improved noticeably since January when the port complex sustained some of its worst congestion in years, largely due to the front-loading of imports associated with the United States-China trade war. The average truck visit time in January was 98 minutes.
Two factors jump out from the truck mobility data that is gathered monthly at the largest US port complex. The egregious turn times of more than 100 minutes that several terminals recorded in recent months all dropped below 100 minutes in September. Fenix Marine Services, which operates the CMA CGM/APL terminal, recorded an average turn time of 77 minutes, down from 110 minutes in August. Total Terminals International reduced turn times from 88 minutes in August to 73 minutes in September, while West Basin Container Terminal improved from 90 minutes in August to 76 minutes in September.
Also of significance, the percentage of truck visits lasting longer than two hours dropped to 12 percent in September, the lowest since the HTA began recording truck visit times in October 2013.
Excessive turn times at a few terminals, and a relatively high percentage of visit times longer than two hours throughout the harbor, had previously inflated the average turn time numbers for the port complex as a whole. Some terminals consistently perform much better than the port average. For example, SSA-Matson and Long Beach Container Terminal consistently have turn times at 40 minutes or lower. Most terminals hover around the port average in the mid-70-minute range.
Trucker, terminal operator collaboration paying off
A driving force behind the lower truck turn times is the cooperation between truckers and terminal operators, who have been meeting regularly to discuss performance issues for the past five years.
“The terminals are really working on it,” Alan McCorkle, president and CEO at Yusen Terminals Inc. (YTI), told JOC.com. “YTI takes the turn time data seriously.”
YTI in September recorded an average truck visit time of 60 minutes. YTI’s turn times have been better than the port-wide average every month this year, according to the HTA data.
“Five years ago, I think the relationship between the terminals and the truckers was tenuous. There was a lot of distrust,” LaBar said. “Today, every terminal operator in California is a member of the HTA. We are continuing to look at ways to improve efficiency in a collaborative manner.”
Los Angeles-Long Beach in late 2018 and early 2019 experienced an unusual surge of imports carried by 34 unscheduled vessels as retailers and manufacturers moved up deliveries to stay ahead of tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on imports from China. The shipments that would have normally occurred in the first quarter of 2019 sat for months in warehouses throughout Southern California, leading to equipment shortages in the region and causing containers to stack up at marine terminals.
The extra-loader vessels, followed by blanked sailings when volumes dropped, upset the normal flow of containers that terminal operators prepare for in their operation plans.
After months of congestion in Southern California, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) shifted some of their discretionary cargo to other ports on the West and East coasts and Canada’s Pacific Northwest. As a result, container volume growth in Los Angeles-Long Beach this year has come to a halt. Total laden and container movements in Los Angeles-Long Beach in the first eight months of 2019 are basically flat at 11,283,280 TEU compared with 11,290,272 TEU in the same period last year, according to port statistics.
Slowing volume growth serves as relief valve
With no container surges to deal with this summer and fall, terminal operators concentrated on process improvements and technology advancements aimed at reducing congestion and accelerating cargo velocity. Sean Pierce, president and CEO of Fenix Marine Services, said the terminal rolled out its transformation and optimization program that included reconfiguring the facility to improve traffic flow. Fenix in October will continue work to install a new gate and an optical character recognition system that should improve truck turn times even further, he said.
Fenix anticipates a major improvement in performance in the first quarter of next year when it introduces advanced dynamic forecasting that will notify BCOs and truckers when their containers will be available for pickup. The system will push appointments to truckers, suggesting to them an optimal time for picking up their containers, Pierce said.
Chassis shortages and dislocations at marine terminals caused by front-loading of shipments are pretty much over, and there are now sufficient chassis at the terminals to handle incoming shipments, terminal operators said. Ron Joseph, executive vice president and COO of Direct ChassisLink, said the pool of pools website this week listed the chassis on hand at LA-LB terminals at about 32,000, up from 23,000 during the peak of the congestion problems. Chassis dwell times on the streets are down to 4.2 days for 40-foot chassis, compared with 5 to 7 days last winter, he said.
Container dwell times at the terminals have also come down, according to statistics published by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA). Dwell times in the LA-LB port complex in August averaged 2.53 days, down from 2.66 days in July, and the lowest average for the past 12 months, PMSA reported. Additionally, only 3.3 percent of the containers remained at the terminals for five days or longer, down from 5.6 percent in July. Terminal congestion is reduced when container dwell time is low because more space is available for inbound containers.
Terminal operators also said the rail service issues of earlier this year associated with intermodal trains arriving late and departing late from on-dock rail yards are largely gone. “We’ve had no real issues with rail car availability and the release and pulling of trains,” Pierce said.
Refining appointment systems is crucial
As terminal operators attempt to refine their truck appointment systems, problem areas still remain, especially for appointments to return empty containers to the terminals. Empty-container issues are due in part to the structure of the vessel-sharing alliances in which carriers bring inbound loaded containers to a terminal associated with one of the carriers but direct the return of the empty containers to another terminal affiliated with another member of the alliance. Other port complexes with multiple terminals, such as New York-New Jersey, experience similar challenges.
“Empty restrictions are severe — steamship line shut outs, dual transactions, no same-day appointments, and drivers turned away because of capacity [shortages] even with a valid appointment,” said Scott Weiss, vice president of business development at Port Logistics Group.
Weiss said the ability to make appointments is compromised at some LA-LB terminals, with slots filling up quickly and the next available slot possibly not available for 48 to 72 hours after the inbound container is declared available for pickup. Some terminals are known to open appointments or close areas of the facility to truckers without prior notice, he said.
Terminal operators, meanwhile, say truckers can be blamed for some of the problems because they overbook slots, such as for the return of empty containers. This takes dozens of appointment slots out of service that could be booked by other truckers that have empty containers ready to be returned. One Los Angeles-Long Beach terminal operator estimated there are times when individual truckers book twice as many slots for the return of empties that they actually use.
LaBar said HTA members continue to believe that setting appointments for the return of empties and matching those up with inbound loads to facilitate dual transactions, is the way to go, “if this is done in the right way.”
With LA-LB on track this year to match last year’s record 17.5 million laden and empty TEU volume, the truckers and terminals recognize that continuous collaboration will be needed to correct the current problem areas, LaBar said.
“We are continuing to look at ways to improve efficiency in a collaborative manner,” he said. “We are looking at how to share data to improve operations and measure success.”