Truckers have an easier go of making appointments at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, and changing them as needed, but flow can be further improved if all 12 terminals in the harbor act in unison on their appointment programs.
PierPass Inc., in its third-quarter review, noted the terminals offer so many appointment opportunities each day that 30 percent of available daytime slots and 41 percent of nighttime slots went unused, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s not that truckers aren’t using them. It’s that ample opportunities (for appointments) continue to be available,” John Cushing, president of PierPass Inc., told JOC.com Monday.
Offering creative, flexible, and sufficient opportunities for scheduling appointments is one of the factors that contributed to October turn times being the fastest in six years, according to the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA). The average truck visit time in October was 68 minutes, down from more than 90 minutes in early 2019. When truckers make, and adhere to, appointments, terminal operators are better able to process the flow of containers and mitigate long truck queues at the gates.
In addition to offering sufficient slots each day to handle the average flow of truck traffic, LA-LB terminal operators are generally becoming more flexible in the functions that can be performed. For example, some terminals now allow truckers to make appointments for delivering export loads and returning empty containers. This flexibility facilitates dual transactions in which a trucker can deliver a container to a terminal and take delivery of another on the same trip, which greatly boosts trucker productivity.
Also, most terminals now allow same-day canceling and rebooking of appointments when glitches occur. For example, if a driver with an appointment at one terminal is dispatched but traffic conditions in that area of the harbor are causing delays, the driver can rebook the slot at another terminal while en route.
“Terminals are becoming more nimble. They’re moving into scalable technology,” Cushing said.
Despite improvements, more work needs to be done
Weston LaBar, CEO of the HTA, said that in a general sense improvements implemented by the terminals through PierPass Inc. this past year are contributing to improved turn times, but specific terminals at certain times continue to experience congestion, and those numbers tend to get overlooked when the average turn times for the entire harbor are calculated.
“There needs to be more uniformity across the harbor,” LaBar said. For example, while some terminals allow truckers to make appointments to return empty containers, others do not, which limits the flexibility afforded to the drayage industry and is an artificial cap on how many dual transactions occur.
The return of empty containers contributes to congestion at ports with multiple terminals spread out over a port complex such as Los Angeles-Long Beach, New York-New Jersey, and Seattle-Tacoma, LaBar said. With three large vessel-sharing alliances dominating the east-west trades, it is common for laden import containers to enter a port through one terminal, with the carriers directing truckers to return the containers when emptied to a different terminal.
This contributes to truck surges at the terminal gates, and to chassis shortages and dislocations. According to numbers provided by the pool of pools, which manages chassis in Southern California, of the 185,000 chassis trips in the LA-LB port complex in April, 100,000 chassis were returned to terminals other than the terminals through which the inbound containers entered the port.
Terminals are offering more technology tools to manage truck flows in the harbor. The International Transportation Service terminal in Long Beach for the past two years has offered a predictive analytics tool that allows truckers to make appointments several days before a vessel arrives in port. LaBar said the HTA is a big supporter of predictive appointments, but with only one terminal offering this tool, its value to truckers is somewhat limited.
“The problem is that we need the entire ecosystem of the harbor to be predictive,” he said.
PierPass Inc., which represents terminal operators, restructured its operations last November, replacing the congestion-pricing model with a flat fee. In order to encourage importers to spread their truck calls out over two shifts each day, the terminals since 2005 had charged a traffic mitigation fee of $72.09 per TEU on daytime calls only. That caused excessive truck bunching in the late afternoon as truckers waited for the fee to go away for the evening shift. Last November, the fee was lowered to $31.52 per TEU, charged on truck moves all day. With no disincentive to call during the day shift, the truck bunching in late afternoons disappeared.
LaBar commended terminal operators this past year for reaching out to the trucking community to listen to their concerns and develop programs designed to reduce congestion at the individual terminals.
“The relationship between us is better than it has ever been,” he said. “A lot has been accomplished, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”