The marine chassis business faced some serious challenges during the post-COVID surge. And for an industry that had gone from being “ocean carrier-centric” for four decades to an intermodal equipment provider (IEP) in a mere 15 years, the kinks in the system were exposed. A new era has begun for chassis providers but it is still a work in progress.
Under the Box. A little over a year ago, most of the headlines about the chassis business revolved around the shortage of chassis for drays — trucks moving ocean containers to and from ports. For most of the public, a marine chassis is something with wheels that is stuck underneath a shipping container that you rarely notice unless you are stuck in a traffic jam next to a truck working on a dray.
But the idea that the chassis was critical to the movement of the boxes began to hit home with the general public as talk of the problems with the supply chain entered the mainstream news coverage during the COVID-19 crisis. No chassis, the box doesn’t get moved to the distribution center and Halloween costumes become Christmas gifts.
Suddenly, the chassis shortage was a real problem.
To be clear, a majority, amounting to 56% of the chassis, are for domestic operations but the other 44% of largely marine chassis are involved in carrying ocean containers and thus their utilization is inherently connected to ocean container terminal traffic.
Marine chassis utilization during the post-COVID surge was over 90% and shortages contributed to disruption in the supply chain… and a lot of unhappy customers. Although it was a country-wide issue, the chassis shortage problem begins and ends with port congestion. Export containers couldn’t get into the terminals [largely because surging imports were the priority], thus the boxes on the chassis were unable to be grounded on the terminal tarmac. Consequently, the chassis couldn’t be turned and reintroduced back into circulation and without a free flow of chassis, the demand for chassis ratcheted up throughout the supply chain.
Many in the industry believe there was already a shortage in the chassis fleet and need of an overhaul before the post-COVID surge began, and the freight surge exacerbated an existing problem.
This is not to say there wasn’t an effort already underway to restock the chassis fleet. [For example, Direct ChassisLink (DCLI), one of the largest intermodal equipment providers (IEP) in 2020 invested $85 million in a chassis refurbishment program. And announced in 2022 that it had invested $1 billion in additions and enhancements. Another major IEP, TRAC Intermodal wrote it had invested a billion dollars since it began renewing and growing the chassis fleet in 2015.]
But fleet investments aside, there was a lot of ground to make up with an inventory largely composed of older existing chassis during the COVID period.
Now with the post-COVID fall in marine chassis utilization, the price of chassis has fallen. According to sources, at the peak of…