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Welcome to the Beginning of the Trans-Pacific Mega-Ship Era

Event highlighted by supply chain cooperation.

Successfully working the two largest container ships ever to call at a North American port in the same week required an extraordinary effort involving container lines, APM Terminals, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the railroads, chassis providers and three federal government agencies, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said Monday.

Now the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach must repeat this process week after week to convince trans-Pacific carriers that the largest U.S. port complex is up to the task of handling mega-ships with capacities of 15,000 to 18,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units on regularly-scheduled services. “This was a good statement that we are headed down the right path,” Seroka said.

The 15,000-TEU Maersk Edmonton arrived at APM’s Pier 400 on Dec. 22, the first time a vessel of that size called at a North American port. The Maersk vessel was still being worked at the APM terminal on Saturday when the 18,000-TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin arrived at Pier 400. Two smaller vessels were also at the APM/California United Terminal during the past week.

Seroka said that despite the combined cargo surge from these vessels, the yard, gate and rail operations proceeded smoothly, but it required advanced planning by all of the parties involved. The effort began with the proper vessel stowage in Asia and positioning of export containers at Pier 400 so discharging of the import containers could be sequenced with the loading of the export containers to maintain vessel productivity.

Normally during the Christmas holidays, veteran longshoremen like to take some time off, but the port and employers consulted with the ILWU locals to ensure there would be an adequate labor force to work as many as 10 cranes simultaneously, each with a crew of 20 longshoremen, said Mike DiBernardo, deputy executive director marketing and customer service.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez became involved in the coastwide ILWU-Pacific Maritime Association coastwide contract negotiations this past year, and has maintained close contact with the ports since then, Seroka said. Perez “quietly reached out” to ILWU President Bob McEllrath this week to seek his involvement in the union’s manning efforts, he added.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex has struggled this past year with chassis and rail car shortages, but the ports worked closely with both industries to ensure there would be sufficient equipment to service the mega-ships that would be in port during the same week, Seroka said. The port also stood ready with near-dock container storage capacity in the event that Pier 400 was overwhelmed with container volume, but the 400-acre facility has been able to accommodate the cargo surge, he added.

Seroka said planning for today’s mega-ships actually began 30 years ago when Thomas Bradley was mayor of Los Angeles and he led a massive effort to dredge the port’s access channel to 53 feet, widen the turning basins and begin the construction of some of the largest container terminals in North America.

The capital projects continue to this day, with Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach combined investing about $7 billion in marine terminal expansion, additional on-dock rail capacity, roadway connectors and a new, higher bridge in Long Beach. DiBernardo noted that the terminal operators are increasing the height of existing ship-to-shore cranes, and purchasing new super post-Panamax cranes, to unload mega-ships with containers stacked up to 10 rows high on deck.

The 15,000-TEU Maersk Edmonton is part of a regular weekly rotation of vessels of 13,000-15,000 TEUs in capacity and will continue to call in Los Angeles. The 18,000-TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin will call in Oakland later this week, and its return trip to Southern California will be to Long Beach to test that port’s ability to handle vessels of that size, Seroka said. Carriers will probably test larger vessel calls to Seattle-Tacoma next year, he said.

The Obama administration is closely watching the performance of West Coast ports to determine how Congress and the administration can cooperate with the ports on their transportation infrastructure needs, Seroka said. Port executives have met a number of times this past year with the departments of Labor, Commerce and Transportation, he said.

After contentious contract negotiations that lasted from May 2014 until a new contract was signed in May 2015, and four months of ILWU work slowdowns and PMA retaliation, labor and management came together this week to ensure that the mega-ships were handled efficiently.

“The ILWU must be applauded for their efforts,” DiBernardo said.

Several terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach are already handling vessels with capacities of 13,000 TEUs or larger. The Middle Harbor terminal in Long Beach is being designed to handle vessels of 20,000-TEUs. Dredging is planned or underway alongside berths at other terminals, and most are investing in taller cranes so that many of the 13 container terminals in the port complex will soon be able to accommodate mega-ships, Seroka said.

Equally as important, the ports have established working groups involving shipping lines, terminal operators, the ILWU, harbor trucking companies, railroads, chassis providers and customs brokers to continue to develop process improvements that will be needed to efficiently work the vessels and handle the cargo surges each week, he said.

Source:; Bill Mongelluzzo, Senior Editor
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