Seven years ago today … and “the demanding American consumer” and “incredible growth”.

[“The Rusty Chain” was the title of our first commentary on September 29th, 2004, seven years ago today. We were citing “the demanding American consumer … requiring so many container ships to seek berthing in our ports,” and Mr. Vickerman was reminding us that it was “not feasible to develop two to four times the U.S. port infrastructure to serve this demand.” How times have changed!]

“Trade within the United States, both that of domestic and international goods, is dependent on the transportation system.” Angus Cooper, of Cooper/T. Smith, said that a few years ago.

“Making additional improvements to the cargo chain is a top priority, because building mega-terminals for ever-larger container ships won’t give a port an advantage if cargo can’t move efficiently to its final destination.” Mr. Dinsmore, the Port of Seattle’s Executive Director, was almost prophetic when he issued this warning some months ago.

Mr. Vickerman of TransSystems Corp. was in a position to be even more direct. He has stated that, “With limited financial funding resources, it is not feasible to develop two to four times the U.S. port infrastructure needed to serve this demand. Terminals must change the logistics cost-to-value relationship and become dramatically more productive quickly.”

These knowledgeable men weren’t alone in their thinking. For a number of years all eyes have been focused upon the incredible growth of containerized imports and the scarcity of waterfront acreage. Officials at Oakland, for example, citing the conditions in LA/Long Beach, revealed their intention almost four years ago to spend $1 billion on terminal expansion. “Oakland is betting the lines will hit a brick wall in Southern California,” said Douglas Tilden of Marine Terminals Corp.

Nowadays the lines seem to be hitting brick walls everywhere. Could it be that the demanding American consumer is at fault, by requiring so many container ships to seek berthing in our ports? No, that can’t be so. Maybe the port authorities are at fault because they failed to anticipate this demand? No, that can’t be so, either. The port director can hardly be blamed for the lack of waterfront acreage … and what about the other roadblocks he’s running into … if only the Unions would be more cooperative … and if the drivers could be more reliable … and if communities could have foreseen the need for better roads … and if the railroad people had only been able to see into the future … Which of these is the weakest link in our logistics chain, anyway?

Instead of looking for a culprit, the industry should acknowledge what Mr. Vickerman has been trying to point out. Where others must spend their working hours in a cubby-hole, relatively speaking, his position enables him to survey the entire field. Be assured that he recognizes, first and foremost, the pressures placed upon personnel at every level and not just upon those who’ve gathered the headlines. Teamwork counts for something, we must admit, and when dissension exists in a clubhouse, there is a pronounced and noticeable drop in performance and efficiency on the playing field. So maybe there isn’t a single weakest link in the chain. Maybe every link is rusty. Maybe Mr. Vickerman is trying to tell us that the chain needs change.