Real-time truck appointment system at LA-LB takes shape

Real-time truck appointment system at LA-LB takes shape

Trucks at the Port of Los Angeles.

The Yusen appointment system, developed with the cooperation of local truckers, is the type of technology that will be incorporated into the Port Optimizer tool being developed by the port and GE Transportation. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Truckers and the shippers serving the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex and frustrated by the absence of a truly dynamic, real-time appointment system can take heart that improvements are on the way, led by Yusen Terminals.

The Yusen appointment system, developed with the cooperation of local truckers, is the type of technology that will be incorporated into the Port Optimizer tool being developed by the port and GE Transportation. The system — which enables drivers to respond in real time to traffic and port congestion while allowing terminal operators to predict and manage truck flow — is taking shape at the Yusen terminal in Los Angeles, with the potential of correcting the uncertainties that mark the everyday life of truckers and shippers at many ports.

The absence of a truly dynamic, real-time trucker appointment system at any North American port has raised the frustrations of truckers and beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) to a level of high alert. Truckers and BCOs are incurring added expenses and demurrage charges for missing appointment windows even when they are not the cause of the problems. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to make and keep appointments,” said Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA) in Southern California.

If the cooperative effort by Yusen, the HTA, and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach succeeds, the participants believe other North American ports can look to and tailor this emerging model for their unique needs. At a time when growing container exchanges from mega-ships operated by larger ocean carrier alliances are making terminal congestion an annoying fact of life, trucker appointments are seen as a necessity for improving port performance.

LA-LB — two-thirds of cargo by truck

“Two-thirds of the cargo moving into and out of this port complex moves by truck,” said Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. Citing the most recent HTA truck mobility numbers that show an average truck visit time of 87 minutes at the 12 container terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Seroka said, “That must improve.” Seroka said truckers enroute to the ports must have the assurance that if they adhere to their appointment slot, they will be able to complete the transaction.

The starting point for marine terminals and truckers seeking a solution to port congestion is an appointment system that allows terminals to predict and manage truck flow. It must be truly dynamic so truckers can change their calls in real time if they are unexpectedly shut out of a terminal because it is not accepting export or empty containers or if the terminal runs out of chassis or experiences unexpected congestion. “You have to have a system that is able to adjust to exceptions,” said Dan Smith, a partner at the Tioga Group.

Although nine of the dozen container terminals in Southern California have trucker appointment systems, the systems are individually suited to each terminal’s particular operations. There is no common set of business rules and there is no communication among the terminals that will allow truckers to call audibles should the drivers encounter an unexpected problem. The inadequacies of existing systems are based on the fact that most terminals designed them with only their own needs in mind, said LaBar.

LaBar said HTA worked with Yusen Terminals for almost a year to design a system that started with the needs of the truckers and built the solutions around those needs while incorporating features required by the terminal. Alan McCorkle, Yusen vice president in Los Angeles, said he instructed the logistics provider, Voyage Control, to “talk to the truckers and design what they want.” The result, LaBar said, is a flexible appointment system that makes the Yusen terminal in Los Angeles “the fastest conventional terminal in the harbor.”

Voyage Control, which has developed systems in the construction industry in London and elsewhere, learned that the process begins by putting technology aside and focusing on the processes at work in a particular industry. The effort then progresses to developing a system built around those processes, said CEO James Swanston. At a marine terminal, the processes include picking up import loads, returning export loads and empty containers, and having access to the right kinds of chassis, he said.

Despite the gains at Yusen, where the average truck visit time in July was 72 minutes, according to the HTA, Voyage Control seeks greater improvement down the road, if its experience with construction operations around the world is an indicator. “What we’ve done here today is a fraction of what we have done in the construction industry,” Swanston said.    

A major problem faced by truckers in a multi-terminal port complex such as Los Angeles-Long Beach is that the existing appointment systems remain independent of each other and do not allow for changes in real time, LaBar said. He cited a common occurrence where a driver who is returning an empty container and picking up an import load is suddenly stopped in his tracks because the terminal yard becomes congested and suspends receipt of empties until the yard is cleaned up, a process that can take hours. Another common problem is that a driver arrives at a terminal to pick up an import load requiring a specific type of chassis provided by a specific intermodal equipment provider, but the terminal is out of those chassis.

In a truly dynamic environment with a single, electronic platform that provides access to all 12 terminals, drivers could immediately query the system and find another terminal where they could complete a transaction, LaBar said. In the current environment, a driver would have to visit up to 12 different websites and would probably have to call the terminal to make an immediate appointment, if that would even be allowed, he said.

GE’s Port Optimizer

The Port Optimizer tool developed by GE Transportation and piloted at the APM terminal in Los Angeles this past year holds the potential for providing that degree of flexibility via a single platform, Seroka said. He called it an “Expedia for appointment systems” built upon algorithms that allow drivers to access all possible options in real time. By monitoring which terminals are accepting empties or export loads, how close they are to filling their quotas, their chassis availability, and the current traffic conditions at the terminals, the system should eventually be able to provide portwide flexibility to address most exceptions, he said.

Electronic tools that provide real-time conditions at marine terminals, as well as allowing terminals and truckers to predict their equipment and labor needs in advance of vessel arrival, would help the terminals prepare each day for the traffic they will encounter, thereby preventing congestion from developing, Smith said. “The terminal wants a regular, predictable flow of traffic,” he said. With the proper systems in place, if a terminal, for example, sets a quota of 200 container pickups in a defined period of time, it could probably handle 210 if additional appointments are requested. However, if the number climbs much higher, the terminal would simply cut off additional appointments in that time period, he said.

Another problem with which terminals are grappling is defining the ideal appointment window that provides truckers with enough flexibility while still giving the terminal an adequate degree of predictability. Terminal  operators and truckers agree that experiments with four-hour windows determined a lengthy appointment window helps neither the trucker nor the terminal. “Four hours is meaningless,” said Ed DeNike, CEO of SSA Containers. SSA, which has trucker appointments for import loads at its Oakland International Container Terminal (OICT), sets an appointment window that extends from one hour before the appointment to one hour after that time, and it is working. “Truckers and BCOs like it,” he said.

SSA’s handling of trucker appointments illustrates that the same terminal operator may have two different systems in different locations based upon local conditions. This demonstrates why each port should approach appointments based upon its particular needs. SSA’s facility in Oakland is the dominant terminal, handling about 70 percent of the port’s container volume. OICT handles 6,000 to 7,000 truck moves a day over two shifts, DeNike said. Without an appointment system for import loads, OICT would probably start the day with 800 trucks queued up at its gates. “We can’t do 800 trucks in one hour,” he said. Appointments allow OICT to manage truck flow and spread the volume throughout the day and evening shifts.

SSA operates three terminals in Long Beach, but does not have appointment systems in Southern California because it drays about 50 percent of the import loads as soon as they are discharged from the ship to an off-dock yard it controls. “We don’t need appointments there,” he said. However, since Los Angeles and Long Beach are nudging all terminals into establishing trucker appointments, DeNike said SSA will implement appointment systems in Southern California if terminal operators under the West Coast Marine Terminal Operators Association (WCMTOA) decide to implement that policy, but only for import loads, he said.

That may, in fact, become the case later this year if the Federal Maritime Commission allows WCMTOA to implement its proposed PierPass 2.0 extended-gates program that is based upon a flat fee coupled with mandatory appointments.   

Southern California is the most complex port environment, with 12 marine terminals served by three vessel-sharing alliances with vessels up to 14,000-TEU capacity that regularly discharge and reload 10,000 containers or more during each vessel call. The two ports believe it is in everyone’s best interest to act as facilitators encouraging truckers, terminal operators, ocean carriers, and equipment providers to cooperate on developing a trucker appointment system that meets the needs of the port community as a whole without disadvantaging any individual sector of the supply chain.

“Are the ports taking a leadership position? Absolutely,” Seroka said. The system of systems that is being developed with GE Transportation seeks to accommodate all of the technologies that are available today, as well as future technologies, through a single platform that serves the entire port community, he said.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.

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