Delivery delays of up to a week still common on key routes, with heaviest peak traffic still on the way.
Asia cargo may be flowing more smoothly through West Coast port terminals than it did this time a year ago, but it still is not reaching US importers and retailers in a timely manner, according to container shipping lines operating in the trade.
Transpacific Stabilization Agreement (TSA) Executive Director Albert A. Pierce said lines are currently experiencing the heaviest volumes of the current peak season, with sustained traffic levels now aboard ship bound for the US. During most of the summer, containerized cargo has moved more smoothly through port gateways compared with the gridlock seen during 2004. But intermodal delays of up to a week in getting import containers delivered to US customers are commonplace.
Ports and terminal operators have improved throughput, yet arriving containers continue to back up at shoreside terminals or remote storage facilities, often accruing per diem charges, waiting to be loaded onto inland-bound trains. Locomotive and rail car shortages have created Southern California on-dock rail delays of 24-48 hours, and wait times of 4-6 days for cargo moving via the off-dock intermodal container transfer facility. Delays of 48-72 hours along the Sunset Corridor are also common, and interchanges in the Chicago area can take 3-4 days. With the Panama Canal operating near full capacity, shipping lines are seeing transit delays of 1-2 days, even when reserved transit time slots have been booked. Hurricane damage in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida has slowed Southern Corridor rail traffic further. The combined effect from these delays has been periodic backups in arriving cargo and longer gate turn times for trucks at harbor terminals.
“Ocean carriers have responded to Asia cargo demand by deploying ships and equipment, investing in staffing and information systems, and adapting routes and operations to successfully reduce port and terminal congestion,” Pierce explained, “but they don’t manage the entire chain and that ultimately affects their network capacity.” Pierce suggested that most reports of congestion problems having been solved come from harbor areas that have shown improvement and that also are among the most visible pieces of the supply chain network. Delays along the rail network and through the Panama Canal have been less apparent on a day-to-day basis and will take longer to fix.
“Railroads are building longer intermodal trains to compensate for a shortage of locomotives and higher fuel costs,” Pierce offered as an example. “In many cases, the size or configuration of on-dock or near-dock rail yards limits train size, so railroads send multiple short trains to the inland ramp to be assembled into a single train. As that train heads inland, it shares track with more and longer trains carrying coal, agricultural products and passengers, adding further to delays.” Trains often sit idle en route due to breakdowns, bad weather, crew changes and other factors, he added.
Meanwhile, in order to improve velocity, port and inland rail terminals have reduced free-time allowances and increased detention charges for containers and equipment left idle in their yards, to improve throughput. While that makes sense as a strategy for them, it has left shipping lines scrambling to arrange more costly truck transport amid truck and driver shortages, to arrange off-dock storage of loaded containers while waiting for the next available train, and to incur significant daily costs for on-dock terminal storage.
TSA projects solid growth in 2005 Asia-US cargo demand ’ after nine percent growth in the first half and a strong peak season ’ and a narrow gap between demand and member lines’ effective capacity in 2006, due in part to ongoing congestion. That forecast suggests, in turn, relatively little impact on throughput capacity from additional container slots entering the market, and the continued potential for major delays resulting from even routine