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Truckers Sound Off on ‘Ridiculous’ Port Problems

The Federal Maritime Commission’s (FMC) consideration of an emergency order aimed at forcing shipping lines to be more transparent with information offered to shippers and truckers, has elicited some frank responses on cracks in operations at the terminal level. 

The FMC is in the midst of a 30-day public comment period in which it earlier this month asked industry to weigh in on the possibility of an order that would force carriers and marine terminal operators to provide cargo availability and throughput information to shippers, trucking companies and railroads. The order could last as long as 60 days and is authorized under the newly passed Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 (OSRA). 

“The lack of information sharing has adversely affected our ability to move freight efficiently as we are unable to secure appointments for an extended period of time and we have experienced drivers getting shut out of empty returns midday due to lack of terminal capacity,” wrote RPM Courier Systems LLC chief operating officer Thomas Connery to the FMC. “Additionally, drivers are repeatedly unable to access a terminal due to traffic metering, which leads to demurrage and/or detention fees. This is unacceptable and needs to be remedied.” 

Recurring themes across many of the comments sent to the FMC by trucking companies have asked that the order require the sharing of information on appointment availability in real time, capacity of empty container return locations and alerts when they hit that thresshold, terminal operator restrictions on the return of empties, traffic that would impact terminal access, any system issues that impede on the processing of trucks and a single platform where all of this information can be accessed. 

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Drayage is a key link within the supply chain system related to the movement of freight from the ports to an inland distribution center, warehouse or other destination. Bottlenecks there, as with any part of the goods movement system, can cause a chain reaction elsewhere. 

Best Drayage chief financial officer Cory Peters suggested the FMC order require carriers to share container availability and information on charges via their websites, pointing out “reliability has never been lower” within container shipping. 

“It should not require multiple emails and/or phone calls to customer service centers that do not respond within days,” Peters said in his letter to the FMC. “The industry cannot work like that.” 

Peters went on to point out that information has become even harder to come by from carriers and the terminals since OSRA took effect, which would fly in the face of the legislation’s purpose. 

“This data has always been provided. Before the days of the internet, we would have to call the terminals to get this information,” Peters said. “With the internet, these basic data points were common for every marine terminal. However, in the past two months, since the passage of OSRA 2022, some carriers and terminals have removed this information and demanded payment for charges that were unavoidable because the information was not available.”

Fees charged by carriers, called detention and demurrage, are levied when equipment—such as containers—are not returned within a specified period called free time. 

Shipping containers sit stacked in a port on June 09, 2022 in Bayonne, New Jersey. (Photo By Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

East Coast Woes

The issue of not being able to easily return empty containers and avoiding late charges is particularly acute at beleaguered East and Gulf coast ports that are now seeing container congestion, with shippers re-routing cargo to avoid the West Coast. 

That’s what led to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to say earlier this month it would take up a container imbalance fee charged to carriers in a bid to address the pile up of empties at the terminals as shipping heads into the peak season. 

The fee goes into effect Sept. 1 and would be determined on a quarterly basis. If an ocean liner’s quarterly outgoing container total is the same or in excess of 110 percent of their import container volume, they avoid having to pay the $100 per container fee. 

Atlantic Star Trucking president Joe Magiera used the example in his comments to the FMC of an employee checking to return an Ocean Network Express container at 6 a.m. when the appointment window opened. Five minutes later, the terminal was fully booked, leaving the employee to sit and refresh the website throughout the day in hopes of an appointment opening. Magiera also pointed to Mediterranean Shipping Company, offering one out of three of its terminals at New York/New Jersey for empty returns earlier this month. 

“MSC is the second-largest [steam ship] line in the world, calling the second-largest port in the U.S., not a mom-and-pop operation,” Magiera pointed out. “To have only one empty return location is ridiculous, plus the one terminal receiving their empties is severely congested as a result.” 

Bill Sirchio, director of terminal operations for STG Intermodal, which handles freight at the Port of New York and New Jersey, pointed specifically to the chassis shortage and pinned blame on trucking companies’ inability to handle multiple drayage moves as they have in the past on the difficulty in scheduling returns.  

“Root cause: the inability of steam ship lines to supply a pragmatic venue to return empty containers, which would create a chassis surplus in the marketplace,” Sirchio told the FMC. “The charade is that port terminals will take back empties via appointments only plus require a double move.” 

Marla Papa, president and CEO of Port of New York and New Jersey motor carrier L&A Transport, told the FMC the company’s parking lot is “completely overloaded” with empty containers that can’t be returned because of the lack of appointment times from shipping line Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp

“We are put in the position to charge clients, per diems, chassis rentals etc.,” Papa told the FMC. “We would like to charge back the steamship lines for our chassis and parking spots as not all clients can absorb such an increase consistently.” 

The sentiment hits on a point made by FMC Chair Daniel Maffei earlier this month following a visit to the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Maffei said at the time he intended to ask the FMC to expand its investigation into erroneous carrier charges to also cover the additional container storage expenses shippers and truckers are being saddled with when empties cannot be returned. 

Maffei went on to say, “I will do everything in my power to ensure that carriers do not receive involuntarily subsidized storage for empty containers that belong to them.” 

The Port of Long Beach first announced its Supply Chain Information Highway in December and just a few months later began piloting the software platform.  (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Visibility in the Supply Chain

Information visibility, and the lack of it, is central to the issues being brought before the FMC. 

The Port of Long Beach said in March it was testing its Supply Chain Information Highway software platform, aimed at opening up information among terminal operators, carriers, trucking companies, railroads and importers. 

The port’s deputy executive director Noel Hacegaba said at the time the point of the platform was not to create a “one-size-fits-all system” but to instead “liberate data.”  

Some supply chain tech providers argue the information any potential FMC order would encompass, to a certain extent, is already out there. 

“Data collaboration is key to moving the industry forward,” said Brian Glick, founder and CEO of supply chain visibility tech company Chain.io. “Doing it right involves thousands of stakeholders and hundreds of individual software companies.” 

Doing it right would also require a significant amount of time, Glick said. 

“Emergency and rushed processes may end up leaving out key stakeholders who want to help but can’t without a measured software implementation plan,” he added.

Any standardized system would likely take too long to create when factoring in all industry groups involved across the supply chain, said James Coombes, cofounder and CEO of freight automation company Vector.ai. 

“I think there’s often a desire to create this holy grail of one [information] standard and, given the vast amount of participants in this space, we just don’t really think that’s feasible,” Coombes said.

The company recently bolstered its arrival notices product offering with an update that adds carriers’ estimates of when cargo will arrive. The idea is to automate and speed up the process of having to check the high volume of new data coming in against previous information and log any necessary alerts into the system.  

While many in the industry are open to technology, the challenges of digitizing the supply chain underscores much of the broader uphill battles the overall industry faces in creating any sort of regulation or solution for such a complex system.

“Imagine what supply chain is,” Coombes said. “It’s fascinating because it’s a network of all sorts of different players and you have to collaborate and work with all sorts of companies just by definition.”