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Global News Carriers see progress in US empties sweeps, but issues remain

Registration dateAPR 28, 2022

Michael Angell, Associate Editor Apr 15, 2022 10:39AM EDT
source : (The Journal of Commerce)

Michael Angell, Associate Editor
Apr 15, 2022 10:39AM EDT
source : (The Journal of Commerce)

Carriers see progress in US empties sweeps, but issues remain Carriers see progress in US empties sweeps, but issues remain

Ocean carriers say they have made headway in clearing out empty containers dwelling off dock throughout the US. The thousands of empty containers outside of ports have led to the use of “pop-up” empty storage yards that are distant from ports and a drag on truck efficiency.

Port truckers have slammed ocean carriers for locking them out of returning empties to marine terminals, forcing them to make added trips or tying up scarce chassis to store the empties on their own. With fewer empties overall, truckers may be able to pick up more imports.

But issues remain with leased and shipper-owned empty containers and recurring terminal lockouts.

The five largest US ports — Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York and New Jersey, Savannah, and Charleston — reported that empty container exports reached 12.1 million TEU in 2021, up 36 percent from the year earlier. compiled publicly available port statistics to arrive at the data.

Los Angeles led empty exports last year with 1.1 million TEU, while Long Beach was at 747,598 TEU. The start of 2022 shows empty exports were up 18 percent through February versus the year-ago period. Since the start of 2022, the number of empty sweepers that have called Los Angeles and Long Beach is more than the total that called the two ports during all of 2021.

Hapag-Lloyd, which recently sent a 7,000 TEU sweeper ship to the Port of New York and New Jersey, said in a statement to that a daily average of 63,000 TEU in empties sat off-dock during 2021, representing about 60 percent of total empties it had in the US at the time.

So far in 2022, its off-dock inventories are averaging 43,000 TEU, about 45 percent of its total US empties.

While not providing similar statistics, HMM told that the time that empty containers sit off-dock in 2022 “has fallen significantly compared to 2021.”

An executive for a top 10 ocean carrier by volume in the trans-Pacific said about 30 percent of the carrier’s empties are sitting off-dock so far in 2022. Last year, the number was above 60 percent.

One tailwind has been better berth availability than last year at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. The executive, who asked not to be identified, said the small, independent carriers that entered the trans-Pacific market last year are making fewer calls to the West Coast.

“The little guys aren’t bringing in as much,” the source said. “That has freed up some ability to move empties.” Ocean carrier, shipper empties still remain On the East Coast, the executive said the carrier was forced to find alternative storage for its empty containers due to the closure of a major near-port empties storage yard in New Jersey.

In its place, it used a site about 30 miles from the New Jersey terminal where its ships call. He said the distance from the port was difficult for truckers, but the volume surge left them no choice.

“It was more of an emergency measure than anything,” the executive said. “It’s a tremendous drain on truck power. Moving empties any distance off dock can be a challenge.

“We only do it when we have to,” he added. “But we are kind of past that now.”

A person who is familiar with the operations of this yard and asked not to be identified said it was not meant to handle the volumes coming from ocean carriers. Instead, it was primarily for storing off-hire leased containers “like returning your rental car,” the source said.

But as ocean carrier customers started asking, the yard opened up to them, he said. The problem was that it only had one gate clerk and one lift operator because the off-hire volumes were small, he said.

“In a leasing company flow, you are only getting a handful a day,” he said. “But then a steamship line discharges a vessel and has a thousand boxes, that’s a whole different environment.”

The yard had to sometimes close unexpectedly after reaching capacity. While the yard would send s about the closure, “maybe that message didn’t always get relayed to the trucker,” he said.

The source said most of the yard’s volume now is from off-hire leased containers after it “encouraged” ocean carriers to move out their empties.

“We cleared out a lot of the steamship line in-service empty containers,” he said. “We’ve had a big rush of off-hires from leasing companies.”

Indeed, shipper-owned or leased empty containers also plague motor carriers. Port truckers in New Jersey were unexpectedly redirected by CMA CGM to another yard that is also approximately 30 miles from the port to drop off dozens of containers, some of which may have been either leased or shipper-owned. Parking lots store empties The empties surge resulted in ad hoc empty yards popping up across the country. A motor carrier executive who asked not to be identified said they were tendered a shipper’s empty container for return to a yard in Adelanto, California, which is over 100 miles from the Southern California ports.

Intermodal sources in Houston have also pointed to the parking lot of the Richie Bros. Auction House in Humble, Texas, which is about 40 miles from the port, as another site where off-hire leased or shipper- owned containers are returned.

“Parking lots are becoming empty container lots,” an intermodal source said. “A lot of these areas weren’t built to house this kind of activity.”

Despite the pledges of fewer empties on the street, truckers are still facing issues. A New Jersey intermodal executive who asked not to be identified said he is having to store about 50 empty CMA CGM containers due to a terminal lockout.

Data from New Jersey’s Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers said that for five working days in April, CMA CGM blocked empty returns and HMM has blocked empty returns on two days.

CMA CGM was not immediately available to comment.

Marine terminals are still chock-a-block with empties and imports, he said. Even when drivers can do a double move at a marine terminal, they face turn times of four hours or more.

“It’s at least two to three hours to get an import load, that doesn’t count the empty return,” he said. “That’s the reality.”

More severe delays exist. Bi-State said in a tweet that March saw turn times of eight to 10 hours on the high end, with one instance of a driver being stuck in a marine terminal for 13 hours.

With truckers finding easier work in long-haul or other types of trucking, the intermodal executive said employee-driver pay is now $29 per hour, a 31 percent increase since last year. The rates that he is being offered to reposition empties, though, are not keeping with that pay.

“For the steamship lines to say bring it that far away, but only pay $500, it’s unprecedented gall,” he said.
· Contact Michael Angell at and follow him on Twitter : @michael_angell.