5 Ways Supersized Container Ships Are Transforming West Coast Ports

Severe port congestion on the West Coast last year has raised concerns about U.S. ports’ ability to handle the container ships of the future.

With 20,000+ TEU capacities, these mega ships are causing congestion issues at seven of the 10 largest ports in the U.S., according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

West Coast ports risk losing business through the soon-to-be-widened Panama Canal if they cannot find a way to turn around larger ships more quickly. 

The trucking and retail industries also suffer when turn times balloon and supply chains are disrupted.

But port stakeholders aren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Private sector partners are investing heavily in new infrastructure, the Obama Administration has earmarked $18 billion for regional multimodal, cooridor-based projects over the next six years, and port termimals are coming up with new strategies for moving containers in and out of the ports. 

Let’s take a look at five improvements that West (and East) Coast ports are adopting.

More infrastructure

Land-side congestion — due to inadequate road and rail connections — is costing ports dearly.

In a recent AAPA survey, 38% of respondents said congestion had led to a 10-25% drop in productivity; 18% of respondents said productivity had dropped 25-50%; and 15% of respondents said productivity had fallen by more that 50%.

To address this issues, U.S. ports are spending a great deal on new infrastructure projects: about $46 billion since 2012, according to the AAPA. Two-thirds of that investment has come from private sector partners.

In Southern California, ports are expanding terminal facilities, deepening berths to 53 feet, installing super-post-Panamax cranes, building more on-dock rail capacity and rail storage facilities, and improving road and bridge access in the harbor area, as reported by the JOC.

Greater predictability

By 2016, 10 of the 13 container terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — which handle a third of all U.S. cargo — will require appointments.

Requiring truckers to make appointments to pick up their containers allows terminals to control the flow of land-side traffic so that ports do not get overwhelmed by carriers eager to pick up their containers as soon as a new ship calls.

Today’s ports were not built to accommodate the spikes in container volume that occur when 14,000 TEU ships come to call.

Instead of several small ships bringing in containers at an even pace, port terminals have to deal with huge peaks and valleys of container traffic.

While appointments are not a silver bullet, they ensure that terminals operate at full capacity without creating land-side bottlenecks.

More efficient container moves

New infrastructure is a costly solution to constrained capacity at the ports. A more cost-effective solution is to use exisiting capacity in a more efficient way.

That’s what the West Basin Container Terminal is trying to do at the Port of Los Angeles, where the forward-thinking operator is trying to change the containers are moved out of the port.

How containers are moved today

Truckers enter the port with a ticket number and a transtainer crane has to dig the corresponding container out of stack of several hundred. A transtainer has to make 3 dead moves, on average, for every 1 container delivered.

How “free flow” works

A BCO’s containers are stacked in a separate pile and top-handler forklifts “peel off’ the first available container and stack it on the next available truck. Result: 1 move = 1 container delivered.

Free flow is typically reserved for large BCOs that have at least 50 containers on one vessle that are headed for the same DC.

Helping the little guy

Most BCOs do not typically have enough containers-per-vessel to merit their own free flow pile. But when they book drayage shipments through Cargomatic, we are able to meet the minimum pile size by aggregating our shippers orders into one pile.

When a Cargomatic container is ready for carrier pickup, a driver accepts the job and arrives at the terminal without knowing which container he will receive. After the top-handler peels the first container off and places it on his chassis, the driver scans the container number with his phone and receives delivery information via our app.

Once the container is delivered, the driver uses the app again to find an empty container to return to the port, thus reducing “dead head” miles.

increase container velocity with free flow


Automation may be the saving grace for West Coast ports, whose Asian customers could be tempted to reroute their East Coast-bound cargo when a deeper and wider Panama Canal opens in 2016.

The Port of Long Beach is in the third year of a 10-year, $4.5 billion expansion program, which includes the $1.3 billion Middle Harbor redevelopment project.

Middle Harbor will have berths large enough to accommodate 18,000 TEU ships, automated cranes that can run 24 hours a day, and enough on-dock rail capacity to handle 30% of container flow.

When Middle Harbor is fully built out in 2019, it will be able to handle 3 million TEUs, which is nearly half the number of containers that passed through all six Long Beach terminals in 2013.

The Port of Los Angeles is also investing in automation with its $510 million TraPac terminal. The expansion project will automate the movement of containers from the berth to automated stacking cranes in the yard and to an on-dock intermodal railyard.

New technology

Larger ships are forming terminals to find ways to pull containers of ships faster and get truck drivers in and out of the terminal more quickly. Below are two new technologies worth noting.

Laser-guided crane systems

SSA Marine is spending $400,000 to retrofit its ship-to-shore cranes in New York and California with laser-guided mechanisms that promise to boost productivity by more than 30 percent, according to the JOC.

With traditional manually-operated cranes, productivity is about 26-28 container moves per hour. Laser-guided cranes have pushed SSA productivity into the 30s. The company’s COO said 40 moves per hour is a possibility in the future.


Weight-in-motion technology (as opposed to static scales for weighing inbound trucks) has been used in the rail industry for years, but its only starting to be implemented at port terminals to reduce trucker turn times.

WBCT is the first terminal at the Ports of LA/LB to adopt the technology, which was installed earlier this year.

The terminal used to have congestion issues at the beginning of the evening shift, when carriers wishing to avoid the PierPass fee tend to bring their export containers, according to WBCT’s IT Manger Bob Chou.

Since WBCT only has five have static scales, 11 of WBCT’s 16 in-gate lanes were being underutilized, even during peak traffic.

Now, with weight-in-motion technology installed at the OCR panel, WBCT can utilize all 16 in-gate lanes and keep traffic flowing during peak periods.


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