Ari Ashe, Senior Editor | Jul 25, 2022 3:36PM EDT
BNSF and UP are metering the inland flow of ocean containers even though their combined intermodal volume is down 5.4 percent over the last six weeks compared with a year ago. Photo credit: Ian Dewar Photography/Shutterstock.com.
BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad are metering how many ocean containers they haul from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because they say shippers are not retrieving containers from inland ramps and returning chassis fast enough to create room for additional cargo.
The two railroads are keeping containers sitting in Southern California to prevent a repeat of last summer when intermodal service to Chicago was suspended for one week and stringent metering was necessary to prevent the collapse of the international intermodal network. But cargo owners in Dallas, Chicago, and Memphis say they are waiting for weeks in some cases for trains to arrive from Southern California.
One consumer-packaged goods (CPG) shipper who asked not to be identified said she has containers destined for Memphis stuck since June 10 in Southern California.
“The [ocean] carriers tell me about how they have no control over what gets on the rail, and they don’t have a timeline,” the source told JOC.com.
BNSF is metering from Southern California to its BNSF Alliance terminal outside Dallas and BNSF Logistics Park Chicago in Joliet because there are more than 1,000 stacked containers at each facility. BNSF said it must coordinate how many containers are loaded on trains in Southern California with the available terminal space in Dallas and Chicago. BNSF is also repositioning cranes to make more containers accessible in Alliance on Aug. 1 and is tapping ITS Conglobal yards in Dallas and Chicago to provide additional storage capacity. ITS Conglobal manages intermodal terminals and owns depots throughout the US.
“Metering volume is a short-term measure, and we ultimately need the demand for loading at the ports to match the capability at the last mile to receive cargo,” BNSF said in a statement Monday. “As street turn times improve and chassis become more available, we will increase the number of trains that we flow into our hubs.”
UP has begun “limited metering” into Memphis but declined to provide numbers. Trucking companies, however, have told JOC.com the number of stacked containers is rising in UP’s terminal in Marion, outside Memphis, with some inaccessible for weeks.
“It is a mess. Loads are grounding because there are no chassis at this wheeled facility, [and] no private chassis allowed,” a source at a trucking company that drays containers from Memphis rail ramps, told JOC.com. “In some cases, loaded containers are buried in stacks for weeks now, with no recourse to retrieve and accruing storage [fees] daily.”
Both railroads have said cargo owners must stop using containers, chassis, and rail terminals as mobile warehousing. Some shippers have acknowledged warehousing constraints as slowing retail sales keep inventory sitting longer than anticipated.
“The last miles of the supply chain must have the capacity to take the freight once it arrives at our inland facility,” UP wrote in a blog post in June. “That means having the necessary truck drivers to get containers to distribution centers and warehouses and having the necessary labor and capacity at warehouses to unload those containers as soon as possible.”
Containers sit in California, not on trains
Keeping containers in California may prevent a meltdown at inland ramps, but it shifts the storage burden to marine terminals. Containers sat in Southern California ports for 13.3 days on average in June, according to the Pacific Maritime Shipping Association, highest since the group began tracking data in January 2021.
That may explain why intermodal volumes from BNSF and UP have fallen a combined 5.4 percent between June and mid-July compared with the same six-week period a year ago, according to data from the Association of American Railroads.
The CPG shipper said she doesn’t think all the blame should be on importers.
“Even when we were backlogged, we weren’t leaving boxes at the terminals for weeks, or months,” the source said. “But there is not just one issue, it’s all interconnected. No empty container returns mean no chassis, which reduces capacity for the truckers to get containers, which then means it takes longer to get containers out of terminals. It’s a vicious cycle and no one party is to blame here. Everyone in the supply chain is guilty to some extent.”