Time and Space

More than ten years ago industry pundits began pointing to the inevitable growth of containerized cargo and the limited amount of coastal acreage that would be available to U.S. seaports in future years. But we had an abundance of both time and space … so there was no need to be alarmed. Then China happened and the folks we had been ignoring began to speak a little louder:

• Mr. John Vickerman was saying, “To be competitive today, marine/intermodal terminals must reduce throughput cost and increase cargo velocity … What we know today will be surely different tomorrow. Our terminal planning must be flexible”. [But we had an abundance of both time and space.]

• Mr. Tommy Stramer was saying, “If changes can be made in such a way as to allow a higher turnover of containers in the ports — coupled with the ability to transport these boxes to inland destinations — then our industry will survive. Otherwise, we are going to see ports, more so on the West Coast of the U.S., but also on the East Coast, approach the point where cargo will not be able to go through them, ships will wait outside, schedules will no longer be maintained, and the new ships of 8,000-TEUs-plus will be just another white elephant in the industry”. [But we had an abundance of both time and space.]

• Mr. Ron Widdows was saying, “Terminal capacity and rail capacity worldwide are growing more slowly than vessel capacity … Trade is growing at 10% a year. Where are we going to have the capacity to handle that? What does supply and demand matter if I can’t get my ship alongside a berth”? [But we had an abundance of both time and space.]

Now that Asian goods are pouring into our seaports it’s obvious that the U.S. no longer has an abundance of both time and space, and of course, those who’ve been ignoring supply chain problems are now clamoring for solutions. And they want them yesterday. In Washington earlier this week, Mr. Widdows had the opportunity to elaborate upon the industry’s problems and the many attempts made to address them. Stopgap measures — band-aids — all of them exercises in futility. Not even Mr. Widdows can solve the puzzle, and he’s been dealing with it for years. He reminds us:

“… Changing our deployments to open up alternate gateways to relieve some of the pressure … we’ve increased capacity to the U.S. east coast … helpful in the short term, but volumes continue to build … most of the changes that our industry can make have been done …

“Expanding some of the ports and terminals in a more rapid fashion, getting a quicker pace of investment in rail … all things that need to happen, but unfortunately these are all things that take years. All this means that capacity won’t open up in some places for a very long time. And it’s not a function of unwillingness to spend the money, it’s just difficult to do.”

[It’s really a function of time and space … and neglect. Let’s see how Vancouver works things out.]