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THERE are currently more than 70 containerships anchored off the Long Beach/Los Angeles coast waiting for a berth at one of the container terminals to discharge their containers. But the terminal yards are full!

So, what’s the issue?

It’s all about the landside of the container supply chain. Once an import container is discharged, it must be moved out of the marine terminal as quickly as possible to make room for another import container, but that’s currently not happening.

There are a number of reasons for this: not enough trucks and/or drivers to pick up containers at the marine terminals; not enough trains to transport these containers further inland (the LB/LA area handles about 40% of the total container throughput of the US); and not enough room in transport depots to store containers which have been picked up from the marine terminal.

The increase of COVID-related import of goods has created this backlog, which means that the current dwell time of containers at the marine terminals is approximately nine days. This is far too long. The terminals discharge and load ships 24 hours seven days a week; however, the receival and delivery of containers only occurs five days a week and no night work. There is also a mismatch of opening hours of warehousing and distribution centres, which are usually only able to receive import containers five days a week and only 12 hours per day at the most, causing import containers to stay in the terminal yards too long.

In order to fix this problem a number of actions have been taken, albeit a bit too late. The Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach will begin charging ocean carriers a US$100 daily fee for each container that dwells at terminals longer than nine days (if moving by truck) or three days (if moving by rail). The fee will rise by US$100 for each additional day the container stays at the terminal. Maybe rather than charging the ocean carrier, who no doubt will pass this charge on, it would have been better to charge the importer/transporter to incentivise the pick-up of the container.

The City of Long Beach has issued an emergency order allowing businesses to temporarily increase the stack height of containers in their depots. Effective immediately, warehouses and container yards will be able to place up to four containers in a stack instead of the two normally allowed under existing zoning provisions.

The federal government has also stepped in and encouraged warehouses and marine terminals to open longer hours in order to speed up the shipment of goods. So far, the response from trucking companies to work longer hours has been lukewarm, citing increased costs.

Does the same problem occur in Australia? Fortunately not, and whilst there is still a certain amount of mismatch of opening hours, supply chain stakeholders and operators have managed to work around it. Consequently, dwell time of containers in Australian terminals is approximately three to four days, and the envy of the world.

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How did we get to this dwell time? First of all, marine terminals match their receival and delivery hours more closely to their ship working hours, including weekend and night work. Transport companies operate similar hours as the marine terminals and if importers and exporters cannot match their opening hours transport operators stage the containers in their yards. In most Australian ports up to 80% of all containers are staged.

Container terminals charge a fee of about $130 TEU if the import container is not picked up within three working days after being made available for pickup. This fee doubles again after two days (payable by the transport company/importer), resulting in an incentive to pick up the container before expensive storage commences. Export containers can only be dropped off within five working days before vessel export cut-off (usually a day or so before arrival). Empty repositioning containers are usually trucked in one or two days before loading onto the ship for export.

I did some work in PNG where the average dwell time in container yards was more than 20 days. Similarly in Timor Leste where a new port is being built at great expense whilst the main port of Dili, which has a throughput of about 50,000 TEU per annum, could have easily handled the increase in throughput for many years to come if the dwell time was reduced from its current 20 or so days.

If the terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach manage to halve their dwell time it would double their landside capacity without the need for increased yard space. Failing that, maybe they should look at the DP World Boxbay concept, which promises an increase in throughput on a smaller footprint by storing containers 11 high, but that might be a bridge too far!

Peter van Duyn,
Maritime Logistics Expert,
Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics, Deakin University

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