Chassis conundrum

PANYNJ is determined to untangle the knot of chassis ownership and responsibility, finds Martin Rushmere

Against a tempo of rising anxiety over worsening port and terminal productivity, New York/New Jersey has taken a stern business approach, coupled with community involvement, to get some zing into shifting cargo between vessel, truck and railway.

The Council on Port Performance includes staff, terminal operators, industry associations, truckers, civic leaders and railway companies. Split into ‘core teams’ responsible for specific aspects, the committees are drawing up separate timelines of action. “We quickly came to the conclusion that there are problems that not any one entity can fix,” says Port Commerce Department director, Rick Larrabee.

The most important and basic problem is sorting out tangled chassis positioning and transfers. ”It's our biggest issue and without solving that, many of the other problems will not be solved,” says Mr Larrabee.

At the heart of it are costs and ownership. Ports, terminals and shipping lines throughout the country are still locked into a waltz of handing off responsibility to each other, each claiming that someone else is the owner and being extremely reluctant to pay for maintenance and movement.

Just how many chassis units there are is unknown, as are the number at each port. NY/NJ depends especially heavily on chassis (which some industry insiders blame on union resistance to greater automation). The result is that arriving trucks often have to wait for units, leading to snarl ups and delays. Container dwell times reached a peak of eight days in January (worsened by winter conditions) and have since fallen to a less than satisfactory eight days.

To get a better throughput, more dockers are needed, with a target of 682, of which 325 have so far been hired.

The council is also having to manoeuvre through red tape. The thicket of anti-trust suspicion, which forbids terminal operators from talking to each other on commercial and business subjects, has had to be set aside in the form of the Federal Maritime Commission giving permission for operators to hold mutual discussions, possibly leading to what Mr Larrabee terms a “community information system”.

Key performance Indicators come into the equation. “We have drawn up three or four indicators, such as dwell time, total imports at berth and total turns at the gate. But, remembering that we are a landlord port, we have to be careful how we use and share the information to avoid the possibility of a tenant getting an unfair advantage. So there are considerations such as whether we gather the information in aggregate form or by each terminal.

“The essential aim is to help improve the system rather than by imposing penalties.”

Bound up with this is how to use the data gained from RFID tags that have been fitted to almost 17,000 vehicles serving the docks.

 An appointment system is being considered for delivery and collection of containers. “But as the truckers note, this is not going to work without a pre-arrival system at the gates and is the last step in the process,” says Mr Larrabee.


Fleet plan

The port is planning for larger vessels of up to 14,000 teu “but the workhorse of the fleet coming here will be 9,000 teu-10,000 teu,“ says Mr Larrabee. “I foresee that the big ships will make fewer calls on the East Coast - probably restricting themselves to us, Norfolk and Charleston/Savannah.”

The higher air draft of 215 feet for the Bayonne Bridge should be finished in 2016.

Little change is expected from the widened Panama Canal, with Suez continuing to be the main conduit.

Cargo volumes are trending up, with the teu count up 4% over 2013 to 1.5m in the first half of the year. NY/NJ gets just over half of all the traffic between Maine and Norfolk, 32% of all East Coast containers (up 2.9% for the half year over 2013) and 13.7% of total US traffic. The strategic growth plan is to concentrate more on rail, with $700m having been spent to improve facilities, and lure more discretionary cargo. Road transport accounts for 85% of traffic. “The market at the moment is within 200 miles of here,” says Mr Larrabee. “We want to look as far away as Chicago and short-line rail, to areas such as Pennsylvania, will become more important.”

LNG is being watched as a growth area. “It will be gradual, starting with facilities for vehicles, moving to harbour vessels and then possibly supply points for ocean vessels.”


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