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The US Federal Maritime Commission has said that resolving congestion at container terminals is “in many ways today’s most critical and relevant trade-related issue”.

An 83-page FMC report on US port congestion, based on the feedback from four public forums held at major gateways during the supply chain crisis in the second half of 2014, was released on Tuesday.

It identifies the six most discussed issues at the forums that need to be addressed to improve the nation’s logistics performance – which currently lags behind European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, where ports have all also had to contend and overcome terminal and landside congestion in the past few years.

The report (which you can access here) focuses on capital investment and planning; chassis availability; vessel and terminal operations; drayage & truck turn time; extended hours/PierPASS; and collaboration and communication between stakeholders.

The FMC says questions remain about whether container yard and landside facilities are able to cope with the greater volume of containers being discharged from the bigger ships deployed by ocean carriers, whether container lines are prepared to pay for the additional resources required to handle these vessels and whether terminal operators have the labour flexibility to clear cargo backlogs.

Chassis operations were thought by many to be a key factor in landside delays, and much more of a pinch point affecting intermodal operations since ocean carriers decided to divest their own chassis pools.

Reflecting the fact that ocean carriers have traditionally provided them in the US, most continue to be stored and maintained on marine terminals “in a comparatively harsh operating environment”. The problem, expressed by many trucking concerns at the forums, is that the chassis are subject to damage.

Indeed, once drivers locate an available chassis they are required to conduct a pre-trip inspection to check its condition, such as its locking pins, tyres and mudguards. If even minor problems are found, truck drivers are obliged to take the unit to an on-dock repair shop or run the risk of committing a highway violation.

As a result, too much driver time is spent searching around a terminal for a chassis in good order. The consensus from the forums was that there are currently not enough chassis to cope, especially during peak periods, and that those that are available are often damaged.

One stakeholder suggested making the area inside a terminal where chassis are picked up “more like a car rental lot”.

The FMC noted that the introduction of a so-called ‘grey’ chassis pool at certain US ports had improved the situation since the forums.

Such is the importance of trade to the health of the US economy, the FMC says it is considering establishing an additional advisory committee, led by industry experts, which would work with the commission to identify and help resolve congestion at container ports.

Chairman Mario Cordero said: “International trade relies on our nation’s ports, therefore port congestion is a paramount question at the international supply chain level.

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