Reported by Donna Littlejohn for Los Angeles Daily News, reposted in Transport Topics.
In January, a record 109 ships awaited entry into the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, often stretching to south Orange County.
It marked a peak in the supply chain congestion that has bedeviled the nation’s two busiest ports during much of the pandemic.
On Aug. 11, that number stood at nine ships.
“Just amazing,” Port of L.A. Executive Director Gene Seroka said about the decline.
“We’ve reduced the number of anchored ships by 90-some percent,” Seroka said in a recent phone interview, “while still moving record amounts of cargo in the first six months of this year.”
Among the most impactful tools the ports are now utilizing are sophisticated digital data trackers that give the seaports invaluable information on what ships are headed their way, how much cargo they’re bringing in and when they will arrive.
“We’re a lot smarter than we were a year ago,” Seroka said, adding that collaboration has seen a big boost throughout the supply chain as solutions are explored.
“I feel really good about where we are compared to last October,” Seroka said, adding that while he knew the digital tracking would make big improvements, he didn’t know how much or “how detailed it could get.”
But the supply chain is far from fixed.
While a nationwide push to shore up the supply chain’s vulnerabilities — a push that has included the White House, the ports and labor unions, to name a few — has made strides, a new wrinkle looms.
And wrinkles can spread fast.
A buildup of cargo being handled by the nation’s major rail carriers has pushed up the ports’ terminal dwell times. The rail carriers, officials have said, are dealing with a lack of equipment and workers, which the train companies have also acknowledged.
But how critical the rail problems are for the supply chain in general and efforts by the L.A. and Long Beach ports to reduce their cargo backlog doesn’t appear to be settled.
“It does affect” the supply chain, Seroka said of the rail situation, “but it’s not putting us in dire straits and we’re not in gridlock.”
Others, however, see potential trouble on the way.
“The current state of freight rail is not great,” said Marty Oberman, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates disputes involving railroad rates, mergers and other matters.
Oberman was among several speakers at a virtual U.S. Freight and Railroad Worker Town Hall meeting on Aug. 12.
Rail workers, who are embroiled in a union contract negotiation that has gone on for three years, said during the town hall their employers laid much of the groundwork for the problems themselves by laying off some 45,000 people during the coronavirus pandemic.
A good number of those workers never returned and the challenge of training new hires quickly has proven difficult. A lack of equipment, such as locomotives and chassis, has also caused problems, those who spoke at the town hall said.
Officials for the two biggest rail carriers operating out of the L.A. and Long Beach ports said their companies are working to hire more employees and add equipment. But one of those officials, in a statement, also appeared to shift responsibility for supply chain issues overall onto other aspects of that nuanced and complex logistics network.
Another problem raised during the town hall discussion, meanwhile, was the trend toward longer trains posing challenges for maintenance and schedules.
“The railroads cannot even provide us with a schedule of arriving trains into the port,” said town hall participant Ramon Ponce De Leon, coast committeeman for the longshore union. “There are longer wait times being passed on to consumers and we’ve had a record number of cargo sitting on the docks. This is totally unacceptable.”
Many of the workers blamed the precision scheduled railroading system, or PSR, which is used by Union Pacific Railroad but not by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, more commonly known as BNSF.
The idea is aimed at simplifying routing networks, but the system has drawn criticism from rail workers and shippers.
“PSR isn’t working,” said Vince Verna, vice president and national representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotives and Trainmen in the Teamsters. “We’ve really seen and heard things going downhill with the adoption of the new business model, the discontent started in 2015. Precision scheduled railroading is neither precise nor scheduled; it’s created a very chaotic and ineffective way of doing business.”
Critics say the platform, introduced before the pandemic, took rail companies away from customer service priorities to a focus on profits.
“This is going to require long-term solutions,” said Greg Regan, president of Transportation Trades in the AFL-CIO, who moderated the virtual town hall. “There’s not going to be quick fixes.”
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