The epic levels of congestion seen at US ports in recent months has exposed the challenges terminal operators are wrestling with as they continue to adapt to bigger ships. While the economic and environmental advantages of larger vessels have been documented and acknowledged for some time, the operational impacts felt by the terminals and the entire supply chain are just emerging. Bigger ships are the new reality in the shipping industry. Based on ship orders, they are here to stay and are only expected to get even bigger in the coming years. The question for ports is what they need to do in order to handle the big ships at acceptable – if not optimal – levels of productivity. The recent congestion issues at US ports illustrate the challenges stemming from vessel capacity outpacing terminal efficiency.
Port congestion is not new to US ports. Ports across the country have experienced varying levels of congestion over the years. However, the emergence of megaships has exacerbated the degree and extent of congestion. Over a five-year period, vessels deployed in the transpacific trade lanes nearly doubled in capacity, while the terminals – which were sized for much smaller ships – have remained relatively unchanged. The result has been significantly more cargo arriving at one time at terminals with virtually the same footprint, giving rise to a series of operational challenges that has had a ripple effect throughout the supply chain and caused the congestion that slowed US ports, a phenomenon some called ‘the perfect storm’.
The perfect storm
The congestion was caused by the convergence of various factors. For one, …
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