Cargo flow through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has improved over the past several weeks owing to progress in clearing empty containers from the docks and an increase in labor availability, stakeholders at the largest US port complex say.
While the Southern California ports — which handle about half of all US containerized imports from Asia — are expected to be dealing with terminal congestion and vessel backups through the first half of the year, terminal operators told JOC.com cargo flow is definitely improving.
“This has been a phenomenon of the last two to three weeks, but it’s all going in the right direction,” said Alan McCorkle, president of Yusen Terminals in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles in January had about 90,000 empty containers taking up space at its six container terminals and near-dock temporary storage sites, but that had dropped to about 64,000 as of Thursday, Gene Seroka, the port’s executive director, told a virtual press briefing.
Trans-Pacific carriers since October have deployed more than 75 “sweeper ships,” or empty loaders, whose sole purpose was to carry empty containers back to Asia. The ports say those ships removed more than 168,000 empties that had been congesting marine terminals and making it difficult for dockworkers to deliver laden import containers to truckers.
“The empty loaders get the priority [labor] allocations,” said McCorkle. Now that Yusen has reduced its inventory of empty containers, it will concentrate more of its labor force on delivering laden import containers to truckers, he said.
In addition to the empty containers that are vacated by the ad hoc sweeper ships, regularly scheduled vessel calls leave each week with thousands of empty containers. Seroka said that for every laden export container, the ships have been carrying an average of 3.5 empties.
Seroka said the port complex also continues to make progress reducing long-dwelling laden import containers, owing in part to proposed fees on containers that dwell for nine days or longer. The ports, citing progress in thinning the volume, have yet to actually implement the fee, but they say the threat of the extra charge has served to reduce the number of long-dwelling containers by more than half.
However, some importers continue to let their containers dwell on the docks for “15, 30, and in some cases 40 days or longer” because they have been granted extended free storage time in their service contracts with shipping lines, Seroka said. With the contracting season now underway in the trans-Pacific, he urged shipping lines to address the issue of extended free time.
He also urged shippers, carriers, and the western railroads to increase the volume of cargo they ship via intermodal rail to the eastern half of the country. BNSF and Union Pacific railroads last summer began to “meter” the amount of inland point intermodal (IPI) freight they accepted at West Coast ports in order to reduce congestion at their intermodal ramps in the interior US, particularly Chicago. As a result, about 30 percent of the on-dock rail capacity in Los Angeles goes unused, Seroka said. Long Beach has a similar amount of unused on-dock rail capacity at its six container terminals, according to the port.
Seroka also said the port complex has reduced its vessel backlog from the peak of 109 on Jan. 9 to 74 on Wednesday through implementation of a new queueing system developed with the carriers, the Marine Exchange of Southern California, and local air-quality regulators. Under the so-called “port call optimization plan,” a date is assigned for labor availability in Los Angeles-Long Beach when the vessel operator leaves the last port of call in Asia.
Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange, told JOC.com the vessel’s arrival time in Southern California is calculated based on the roughly two-week trans-Pacific voyage, with the vessel operator slowing the speed of the vessel when it leaves Asia in order to arrive at the designated time. The arrival time can be re-calibrated en route, if need be, so that the vessel can proceed to berth when the labor is available at the terminal in Los Angeles-Long Beach, Louttit said.
Meanwhile, the longshore workforce, which was hobbled by a spike in Omicron cases last month, is almost back to normal, president of the Pacific Maritime Association Jim McKenna told JOC.com Thursday. Frank Ponce De Leon, International Longshore and Warehouse Union coast committee man, said the union is handling the current cargo volumes “within our normal capacity.”
“It’s about 90 percent better. We’re dispatching about 2,500 jobs on the day shift,” said McKenna. “We would like to be back up to about 2,800 to 2,900 jobs and should be there next week.”