Mandatory appointments for trucks picking up import containers will soon be the norm at the majority of marine container terminals in the nation’s busiest port complex.
In 2016, the number of terminals at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles requiring appointments for trucks calling for inbound containers is expected to double. By the end of next year, 10 of the 13 container terminals will have mandatory appointments for trucks, up from five today.
More terminals are adding appointment systems to lessen the likelihood of delays by spreading truck visits throughout the day. But more terminals mandating appointments has also raised concerns because each terminal has its own separate system.
Driving the shift to appointment systems is the increase in cargo volumes. In 2014, more than 15.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) crossed the docks of the San Pedro Bay ports, nearing the peak of more than 15.7 million TEUs recorded in 2006.
“We are entering the growth period delayed by the recession,” said John Cushing, President of PierPass. “The physical footprint of the port will not allow the terminals to get larger so we need to work smarter.”
What’s New and What’s Not
Appointment systems for trucks at the San Pedro Bay ports are not new. They date back to 2006 after multiple years of soaring cargo volumes led to long gate waits and increased traffic congestion.
The five container terminals where appointments are already required before trucking companies can send drivers are Total Terminals International (Pier T) in Long Beach and APM Terminals, Eagle Marine Services, West Basin Container Terminal and Seaside Transportation Services in Los Angeles. Most appointments allow a three-hour window.
Those transitioning to mandatory appointments are Long Beach Container Terminal (Middle Harbor), SSA Terminals (Pier A), International Transportation Service (Pier G), and Pacific Container Terminal (Pier J) in Long Beach, and TraPac in Los Angeles.
PierPass informed stakeholders that more terminals would be adding appointment systems at the Supply Chain Optimization meeting held at the Port of Long Beach in late August. PierPass is a not-for-profit organization established under an agreement approved by the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) that allows the San Pedro Bay marine terminal operators to discuss common issues.
More mandatory appointment systems are coming online at San Pedro Bay container terminals amid efforts to improve the flow of cargo across the Southern California supply chain. Industry dynamics in play today are new shipping alliances, bigger ships delivering more cargo in a single call, and chassis provided by third-party operators.
Between fall 2014 and spring 2015, those changing fundamentals collided with protracted contract negotiations, leading to congestion that has since eased, but that no one wants to see again. To ensure the region remains competitive, the ports are spearheading regional supply chain optimization initiatives under an FMC agreement allowing for their collaboration.
“The transaction between the truck and the terminal has always been ripe for improvement and those efficiencies were front and center during the recent congestion,” said Michele Grubbs, Vice President of the Pacific Maritime Shipping Association and a member of the ports’ Supply Chain Optimization committees. “Now there is a real process for bringing all the parties together to tackle this longstanding challenge.”
With trucks as the primary mode for containers leaving and entering the port complex, the challenge is not small. In 2014, trucks moved more than 11 million TEUs – about 73 percent of the total container volume – in and out of the two ports. On-dock rail handled the remaining 27 percent. Increasing that rate is also part of ongoing efforts to improve the flow of cargo in the region.
More than 15,000 trucks registered to nearly 1,500 licensed motor carriers call at the 13 container terminals throughout the harbor complex, according to the most recent drayage registry counts. The terminals with appointment systems have different systems based on operational needs, and each trucking company also has its own way of doing business.
The question for the trucking industry is whether mandatory appointments will streamline gate operations or complicate matters, said Weston LaBar, Executive Director of the Harbor Trucking Association, a coalition of intermodal carriers serving the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. “There is an opportunity for this to be something really good, but it is incumbent upon everyone working together to figure out the best system for all the stakeholders.”
Currently, there is no clear connection between mandatory appointments and turn times. The HTA’s most recent Truck Mobility Data report shows that San Pedro Bay terminals with mandatory appointment systems varied widely for the amount of time it takes trucks to arrive outside the gate, complete a transaction, and get back on the road. One terminal averaged one of the fastest turn times of less than an hour; another averaged turn times of nearly two hours, according to the HTA’s August data.
Long Beach’s Matson Terminal at Pier C, operated by SSA Terminals, had the best turn times of all 13 terminals with an average of 40 minutes. Matson, whose operation differs significantly from the other terminals, is not planning to implement mandatory truck appointments. The two remaining terminals, Yusen Container Terminal and California United Terminals in Los Angeles, are expected to require appointments in the future.
Separately, the terminals track how often appointments are kept. The port-wide average is 70 percent, meaning most trucks make it within the window, but nearly one in three appointments is missed.
Inherent differences between how terminals and trucking companies operate include how they measure turn times. Terminals track them from the time trucks check in at the gate until they leave: the amount of time inside the terminal.
“The terminals can only measure what they can control,” Cushing said. “Many truckers arrive at the port outside the terminal gates as much as two hours before they plan to go into the terminal.”
A larger difference is how each measures productivity. Maximizing resources for terminals means moving as many containers as quickly and safely as possible. For trucks, it means safely moving as many loads as possible during available hours of service, with as many dual transactions — dropping off one container and picking up another — as possible to eliminate wasted trips.
Terminal appointment systems don’t take trucking priorities into consideration, LaBar said. He cited Port Metro Vancouver in British Columbia as one example of how others are bridging the gap. Port Metro Vancouver, also a landlord port, imposes penalties on terminal operators for excessive delays.
In 2014, Port Metro Vancouver handled 2.9 million TEUs, less than 20 percent of the volume that moved through the San Pedro Bay ports. “It’s still a good place to start for discussing a system that may work,” said LaBar, whose organization is also represented on the ports’ Supply Chain Optimization committees.
PierPass has links to each terminal’s appointment system on its website. The organization researched the options for an integrated system, but found nothing suitable. “We’re not aware of any single system that can run multiple appointments systems through a single dashboard,” said Cushing, a recognized leader in goods movement technology as the founder of eModal.
That may be an area where the ports can play a more active role, said Mike Christensen, the Port of Long Beach’s Senior Executive Lead for Supply Chain Optimization. Data is a major component of every strategy the ports are looking at to improve efficiency across the supply chain.
“The success of all our efforts to improve the flow of cargo will be defined by improving the flow of information among the partners,” Christensen said. “We’re aggressively examining the role we can play in the collection, processing and dissemination of information related to the movement of goods through our gateway.”
An example of how an integrated system can improve efficiency for the entire supply chain is the “Pool of Pools” interoperable chassis system established by the three main chassis providers serving the port complex, Christensen said.
LaBar praised the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles for actively pursuing solutions to help keep the region competitive. “The leadership at the ports has been strong.”
Cushing agreed that open communication among all the stakeholders strengthens the entire supply chain going forward. While terminals and trucking companies have talked about these issues in the past, the new framework created by the ports sets the stage for more progress.
“It doesn’t serve anyone in the supply chain if the system is not working to its fullest potential,” Cushing said. “At the end of the day, everybody just wants to keep that container moving.”