The weight is nearly over
TT Club’s Peregrine Storrs-Fox sees some bright spots in the otherwise gloomy box weighing issue
The revision is simple enough – what is delivered to the ship must be weighed. There has been a long and thorough consultative process spanning four years. The IMO has amended SOLAS with a requirement for shippers to obtain and communicate the verified gross mass (VGM) of each packed container as a pre-condition of it being loaded on board a ship.
The enforcement date is July 1 and many industry bodies and representative organisations have offered advice and guidelines. Yet media is filled with reports of confusion, lack of knowledge and outright defiance on almost a daily basis - from shippers, forwarders and even national regulators, who should be overseeing the process.
The port and terminal community are among those who have embraced the regulation. While there are different approaches, many ports have issued clear guidance on how they will support compliance with what is a necessary and overdue safety initiative.
Terminals have had to determine how they will handle both the information and the physical boxes. Processes have been implemented to manage the in-gate in order to segregate those containers with and without VGM. In many cases, including DP World terminals in the UK, all containers will be weighed in case a VGM has not been communicated before arrival at the gate. In other cases, predominantly in the US, ports have announced that they won’t accept containers without a VGM. Perhaps not a perfect situation but at least shippers have been pre-warned. The aim of course is to avoid congestion at the gate if trucks and boxes have to be turned away.
Terminal planning systems have necessarily been adapted so that the information interface with the carrier and ship planner is capable of accommodating the certified VGM. While the shipper remains responsible for producing the VGM, in most terminals, the commercial relationship is with the carrier alone. Where a cost might be incurred through a terminal carrying out the weighing service simplicity and common sense may prevail, leaving the billing of a shipper the responsibility of the carrier.
No industry stakeholder – shipper, freight forwarder, port/terminal and carrier – nor national competent authority want to see disruption. The challenge of increasing terminal productivity in the face of, what for many major ports are ever-larger ships with greater container exchanges, and to keep costs down, are more than enough without having to short-ship and store containers because of a lack of the correct VGM. These service providers will do their level best to maintain a smooth and seamless service.
While the industry has been responding, many have been disconcerted by the lack of guidance from the competent authorities in a number of leading trading nations. Guidance has been forthcoming is some instances with authorities engaged for several months in consultation, notably in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Elsewhere competent authorities have been slow to respond to requests for guidance and, in some cases, especially the US, rather unhelpful in their comments and actions. TT Club and others continue to collate national information on their web portals.
Importantly, as it is the origin of a high percentage of packed containers, China has now issued its guidelines, advising that maritime agencies at the nation’s ports will perform random checks. This Chinese guidance is extensive in its advice to shippers in terms of internal controls and management systems to ensure an accurate VGM.
In the US, the maritime competent authority is the US Coast Guard. Despite being one of the initiating states at the IMO at the outset of the SOLAS review some six years ago, the Coast Guard has been unclear, implying that the regulation had no effect on US export containers. The issue became unnecessarily politicised until a US Senate Sub-Committee essentially told those involved to sort the procedure themselves, recourse to Government oversight being inappropriate.
The Coast Guard has now approved the two methods of obtaining a VGM, but confusingly leaves responsibility for the tare mass of the unit unclear. This is counter to the regulation, which simply states that Method 2 shippers are obliged to have a process to use, not responsibility for the given tare mass.
Much may yet have to be done, but the carrier community is clear: ‘no VGM, no load’ – and the port community should be ready to support that requirement.
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