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Delegates were in good spirits when they departed from Los Angeles last week after attending JOC’s superbly organised TPM conference at the opulent Hyatt Regency, Long Beach; but there are troubles on the horizon, for US shippers in particular, as the nation’s ports struggle to cope with the impact of ultra-large containerships on a fragile infrastructure.

And in the midst of the bidding by ocean carriers to beneficial cargo owners, just ahead of the annual contract renewals on May 1, on the troubled transpacific tradelane, there was certainly a lot to debate both at the conference sessions and at the networking cocktail parties.

The proposed P3, extended G6 and enlarged CKYHE alliances were dominant themes that overshadowed much of the discussion – particularly the ramifications of these mega-alliances on the industry: good and bad.

Of particular concern for US shippers, was the effect of the enforced cascading of redundant post-panamax ships from Asia-Europe to the transpacific trade on the supply chain.

Retailers are already reeling from a significant worsening of schedule reliability, compounded by carriers using the sledgehammer tactic of blanking sailings to combat overcapacity.

While many US ports on both west and east coasts are, technically, big-ship-ready – in terms of depth of water alongside and gantry crane air draught – landside readiness is another issue entirely.

A concern voiced by many at TPM was that, with the advent of larger ships, shippers would face lengthy delays to access their cargo. Many ports, it was said, were operating under a cloud of under-invested, “delicate” infrastructure, which had been exposed by the exchange requirements of the larger ships.

For example, replacing two 6,000teu ships on the transpacific with an ultra-large 13,000teu vessel would, feared industry experts, put unsustainable pressure on the landside operation of terminals.

Compounding terminal choking is the chaotic situation centering on the provision of chassis,  following the almost complete withdrawal by ocean carriers from this US intermodal custom over the past three years. The transition into third-party/motor carrier provision has been torturous, with acute shortages delaying deliveries still further.

This has prompted major retailers – such as home improvement firm Lowe’s, which has partnered with equipment lessor Flexi-Van – to secure their own chassis to safeguard their supply chain and ensure a constant flow of containers from the ports to inland distribution centres.

But smaller shippers may not be able to justify such investment and thus face a lottery of chassis availability.

Moreover, there is a chronic shortage of truck drivers in the US, and recruitment will not be assisted by the prospect of lengthy waits at container terminals as the mega-ships are unloaded.

And in the background, looming large on the west coast, is the end of the six-year contract between the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association and dockers’ union the ILWU on June 30.

Although negotiations have yet to start on a new agreement, PMA president James McKenna is “cautiously optimistic” that a deal will be done – albeit not until after the present contract has expired.

Shippers on the west coast, already facing a challenging year, will hope Mr McKenna’s optimism is not misplaced.

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