Seaports Congestion and Cargo Movements

Seaports Congestion and Cargo Movements

By Kathy A. Smith

Port productivity and congestion are major areas of concern throughout the shipping industry that can be influenced by a variety of factors. And although ports face the ever-changing dynamics of balancing today’s capital expenditures against possible future profits, how ports approach the issues at play depends on their unique set of circumstances.

“What it (congestion) really is, is supply chain inefficiency…” says Bethann Rooney, assistant director of the Port Commerce Department for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PNYNJ). “So if there are trucking problems, railroad, chassis or ocean carrier problems, it’s all felt at the terminal.”

PNYNJ has been working closely will its supply chain partners for the past two years on the Port Performance Task Force to identify and remedy issues before they become an impediment. “We are working on the development of the grey chassis pool so that chassis supply is not an issue,” explains Rooney. “We have already launched a one-stop shopping information portal where across all six of our container terminals, you can get real-time information on the status of your container, vessel or booking. And we’ll continue to work on the operational and policy and procedural issues so that supply chain inefficiency doesn’t rebuild from larger ships.”

Recently PNYNJ welcomed its first 10,100 TEU vessel — the MOL Benefactor — which came through the Panama Canal, ushering in the G6 Alliance’s new NYX service. Once the $1.3 billion Bayonne Bridge raising project is complete (expected before the end of 2017), the port will be able to accommodate 14,000 TEU and possibly 18,000 TEU vessels. “With these larger ships, we are seeing vessels in port for 48 hours at a time, with 10,000 TEUs on board, and when we see the 14,000 TEUs, it wouldn’t be unusual for ships to be in port for 72 hours,” says Rooney. For PNYNJ, and many other big ship ports, that means increased focus on moving cargo efficiently.

At the Port of Oakland, the old 8-5 model no longer works, says port spokesman Mike Zampa. The port has added new equipment and more labor at terminals, new metrics have been developed to assess port performance, and operating hours have been extended (full night operations were recently introduced) to meet changing demands. “So far, they’re helping to ease daytime crowding at terminals,” he says. “Long term, there is an expectation that mega ships will play a bigger role in TransPacific trade. That could mean increased move counts for each vessel call, requiring efficient terminal operations and effective land side transportation to speed imports out of port.”

The average truck turnaround time at the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) is in the 52-minute range for two moves; a drop-off and a pick-up. “From a port productivity standpoint, that’s where a lot of the ports break down,” says Executive Director Griffith V. Lynch. “And that’s when it affects the community, and that’s when you read about it in the papers. I feel for those ports that have had to deal with that, but the Georgia ports have been able to avoid that for many years now.”

In July, the Port of Savannah also received the MOL Benefactor, its first large vessel that came through the expanded Panama Canal. In the same month, the GPA received a $44 million Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to increase rail capacity at the port. The award is a significant portion of a total $128 million Port of Savannah International Multi-modal Connector project, which is expected to be complete in five years.

“It will double our capacity on the terminal,” says Lynch. “And as important, if not more important, we significantly reduced the impact on the community in the way of less crossings by neighborhoods. This is one of those key projects that will allow us not only to stay ahead but to grow. And as that cargo floods the Panama Canal and comes through the East Coast, we expect the rail growth to be a significant component of that.”

PNYNJ has recently commissioned a new study as part of a master planning effort over the next 25 years so the port can meet future demands of the shipping industry. “Our growth will be in intermodal rail cargo that’s destined to New England, to Canada and the Midwest,” says Rooney. “That will alleviate traffic at the terminal gates and at terminal roadways because we’ll be moving the cargo by rail. We have the capacity today to do 1.25 million lifts by rail. When we’re through completing our fourth and final rail facility, we’ll be able to handle 1.5 million lifts. And we’re doing just about a half a million now. We’ve built the capacity in order to capture some of that market in the middle of the country.”

In fact, all told, PNYNJ and its terminal operators have invested over $6 billion to ready infrastructure in order to receive larger vessels, including deepening the waterway to 50 feet, realigning the roadways and performing berth enhancements, among other initiatives. The terminals have invested in new cranes, gate systems, terminal operating systems, as well as container handling equipment, etc.

How has the peak season been changing in recent years? It has flattened out at PNYNJ, according to Rooney, and become more even throughout the year. “Because there are uncertainties in the supply chain, stores don’t want to be left with empty shelves for Christmas, so they are stocking up sooner.”

The Port of Oakland’s Zampa believes there is still uncertainty about the strength of peak season demand. “Assuming an increase in volume, fluid terminal operations will be crucial,” he says. Lynch adds, “Through the last couple of years, we’ve had different peaks. Instead of looking at one season, we’ve forecasted about four percent growth for the year.”

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority reports it has been staying ahead of the curve on infrastructure development in order to meet Canada’s growing need for trade across all sectors. Its Gateway Infrastructure Program has delivered off-terminal infrastructure improvements designed to improve the flow of cargo to and from port terminals on rail and on road, and also contributed to communities by eliminating road and rail crossings through the construction of new elevated roadways and overpasses. The port authority publishes statistics on rail dwell, vessel on-time performance, and live GPS-based truck turn times on its website, which allows port users to review matters such as truck turn times and congestion.

Deciding what key performance indicators to monitor for the most efficient outcomes varies according to ports and their customers’ needs. “I think that productivity can be measured in many ways, whether it’s a ship, a gate, inside a terminal or outside,” says GPA’s Lynch. “But what’s really important for all of the key ports in the U.S. and beyond is just that national program of investment…The FAST grant is a great example of the U.S. Department of Transportation doing the right thing to shore up any weaknesses and get the ball rolling because we’re way behind now. And this is not about a couple of years. This is about an entire generation of lack of investment in infrastructure. So this is a beginning.”

On the equipment front, to help ease congestion, Finland’s TTS Liftec offers the unique Liftec self-loading cassette system which eliminates waiting times in horizontal transports and keeps drivers always on the move. The company says this makes it possible to cut down the number of equipment and operational costs by up to 75 percent.

The cassette system is well suited for operations in container terminals, ro-ro operations, industrial applications, logistics parks, customs inspection sites, rail terminals and with RMG cranes. The cassette works as a detachable transportable steel platform that safely supports the containers, which can be stacked and quickly transported in variety of configurations. The key innovation in this field is the implementation of the container cassette as a floating buffer between container cranes and all horizontal transportation, i.e. the vehicles transporting the container to or from the road or rail carrier.

Using this system, the containers are disconnected from the equipment moving them, leaving the cranes to work without stopping. Transport vehicles can pick up, transport and drop off cassettes without waiting for a container to be loaded or unloaded. Since the translifters are constantly moving the number of units is reduced compared to a standard trailer operation. When not in use the cassettes can be stacked on top of each other, in order to take up minimum space in the terminal.

Terminal planning (inside and out) is also a key factor in mitigating congestion issues, particularly with truck transits. “Anything you can do to increase the flow of traffic and minimize bottlenecks and the crossroad conflicts improves the capacity of the roadway,” says E. Tyson (Ty) Thomas, vice president of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc., a Houston-based engineering, planning and program management services firm.

Thomas has learned from his numerous interactions with traffic engineers that “you can put in a lot of lane capacity in a road system, but you lose a lot of those benefits when you end up with signalized intersections and anything that slows down the flow of truck traffic.” Thomas says part of his company’s focus is on designing pavement systems, utilities and drainage infrastructure. “We try to design longevity into the terminal infrastructure to minimize the maintenance downtime in the terminal that impacts congestion and terminal throughput.”

Preparing ports for the future will always be an ever-evolving process, as will the work of optimizing the supply chain for improved efficiencies. It’s clear this means a lot more cooperation between industry stakeholders is needed to communicate, plan and implement key strategies for more organized work flows and hopefully increased profits as a result.