Moving freight from west to east presents challenge

By Brad Foss
Saturday October 12, 2002

The reopening of West Coast ports brought little relief to the Ross Glove Co., which has 70,000 pairs of leather gloves stitched in the Philippines still stuck on a ship in the Long Beach, Calif., harbor. 

Andy Ross, owner of the Sheboygan, Wis.-based company, doubts he can get his gloves — by rail and then by truck — into the hands of retailers such as L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer in time for the Christmas shopping season. 

“People think it’s all over, but it’s not,” Ross said. “It’s not just about getting the containers off the boats. Now it’s the infrastructure of America that’s going to be congested.” 

Whether the nation’s transportation network becomes as gummed up as Ross fears remains to be seen. But as ports from Los Angeles to Seattle crawled back to life this week after a 10-day lockout, rail and trucking officials said logistical challenges would stymie the eastward flow of goods for days to come. Experts said it would take anywhere from one to two months to empty — and reload — the ships. 

“We’ll be able to squeeze more through the system than normal, but it’s still going to take us a while” to work through the backlog, said Paul Bergant, president of the intermodal division at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Intermodal transportation refers to the movement of freight by both truck and train. 

Dockworkers were under scrutiny Friday for delays in unloading ships, raising concerns that the labor unrest remained strong. As a mountain of cargo was hauled ashore, misplaced freight and equipment-related delays added to the confusion. 

Dockworkers, whose contract negotiations had been stalled, were locked out on Sept. 29 after the Pacific Maritime Association accused them of a deliberate work slowdown. The shutdown cost the U.S. economy more than $1 billion a day by most estimates. The ports were reopened, at least temporarily, by order of a federal judge Wednesday night. 

Rail companies say the biggest hurdle will be avoiding snags when sorting containers at the ports. They’re also concerned about maintaining a smooth flow of eastbound traffic so that empty trains can be brought back to the West Coast efficiently. 

Trucking companies said they were largely at the mercy of dockworkers, too. Industry officials said the waterfront congestion could be alleviated more quickly if the government were willing to temporarily loosen up on regulations that restrict the number of hours drivers can work. 

But the going has been slow so far. 

Truckers said their job was taking twice as long as usual. And the nation’s largest rail company, Union Pacific, said it was carrying 40 percent less freight than normal. 

Port officials said the goal is to get containers with military equipment and perishable goods onto trains and trucks first. 

But that may be easier said than done: Containers packed with materiel belonging to the Department of Defense are mixed in with non-military cargo on commercial liners. 

“If it’s down in the middle of the ship, it ain’t coming out so easily,” said Bill Wanamaker, director of intermodal operations at the American Trucking Associations, a Washington-based industry group.