By Canadian international freight forwarders ASSOCIATION

With a multi-year labour agreement, it would seem reasonable to expect that Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) should be enjoying a stress free period of growth and opportunity. This is not the case and it is up to all stakeholders to address the problem, identify solutions, and get containers moving smoothly. Over the past several weeks, frustrations have grown over the extensive problems in container pick-up and delivery, primarily at TSI Terminals Deltaport and Vanterm, but some aimed at Centerm as well. CIFFA Members share horror stories of five and six day struggles to obtain reservations to move containers out of the terminals. Some have gone so far as to suggest they will change ocean carriers or begin routing containers via U.S. ports simply to avoid the frustrations and costs caused by the current system. Truckers at Port Metro Vancouver have held two ‘rallies’ in recent weeks to protest the conditions at the terminals, further exacerbating an already bad situation.

The negative impacts of the problems are growing. Freight forwarders have received invoices for storage and demurrage charges, in one instance in the thousands of dollars, because the truckers they contracted for the pick-ups were unable to obtain reservations. The reservation system does not allow truckers to secure reservations until the cargo has cleared customs and been released by the carrier. If a vessel arrives late Friday or on the weekend, storage will commence on the fourth business day, Thursday. But when the reservation system opens, the only reservations available are on Thursdays resulting in an “automatic” storage penalty. Delivery dates are missed, sales are lost, customers are jeopardized, and all because a trucker can’t get into a terminal to retrieve a container. On the export side, sailings have been missed and cargo has been rerouted to different carriers and/or to different ports. The situation is having a serious, negative impact on Canada’s trade and on the perception overseas of Port Metro Vancouver as a reliable port.

What are some of the issues? What has been done to improve the situation over the past couple of weeks? What should be addressed to bring more improvements, faster, to the reservations system?

One significant irritant is the fact that reservations for Deltaport open at midnight (referred to by many trucking dispatchers as the Midnight Shotgun Madness) and whatever reservations that are available are usually gone (booked) within five minutes. Dispatchers are spending hundreds of administrative hours searching endlessly for a reservation opening. The system is inefficient and ineffective. TSI should be strongly encouraged to open the reservations system at a more reasonable hour and to make “all” reservations available on a first come, first served basis.

Another issue affecting all but the largest companies is the terminals’ practice of awarding a few select cargo owners/logistics providers “special arrangements” by way of pre-allocated valuable daytime reservations and speedgates (large blocks of “common” containers). It is not clear exactly how many daytime transactions are set aside for these large companies, but terminal operator TSI’s own reports show they average close to 50 per cent, and on some days, up to 60 per cent of all daytime gate capacity at one of the two TSI terminals. This means on those days as little as 40 per cent of all day shift gate capacity is allocated to the general public. Certain large importers and exporters are in effect jumping the queue.

In recent conversations, TSI did identify some areas for improvement with a speedgate reservation system (one block of reservations for one booking on the same ship for the same destination) available to all truckers but the pre-allocated system has to be dissolved. Consideration should be given to moving some of the speedgate/block reservations to the night shift between 5:00 p.m. and midnight, freeing up more daytime reservations for the general public, or eliminating speedgate/block reservations altogether. ALL Canadian importers and exporters must have equal access to a much greater percentage of, if not all, daytime gate capacity at all four federally owned public container terminals at Port Metro Vancouver.

“This is not a new problem. The reservation system has not worked adequately since it was implemented a few years ago and now it is even worse”, said one CIFFA Member. “How bad is it? A carrier (trucker) cannot deliver/pick up containers at the terminal because they can’t obtain a single reservation while the gate cameras show not a single truck waiting to pick up or deliver cargo.” If a trucker can get a reservation, it is not unusual to wait in line for up to four hours to get into the terminal to pick up the container, at which time he is turned around because he has missed his two hour reservation window. He then receives a fine for missing his scheduled appointment. And the extensive delay has put him in jeopardy of missing his following scheduled reservation. The TGCI (terminal gate compliance invoice) issued for missed reservations has not improved the reservation system though that was the reasoning used when this was implemented by PMV. All it seems to have accomplished is to add a new revenue stream for the terminals.

The biggest issue is that there simply are not enough reservations available in the prime daytime business hours. While the complexities of labour and equipment utilization at the terminals is not a subject that can be discussed adequately in the eBulletin, the subject of ‘off-hours’ reservations can and should be addressed. As one Member asked, “how can it be justified that only half of the RTG’s (rubber tired gantry cranes) at Deltaport are working at any given time during the day when trucks are waiting three and four hours to get on the terminal. Clearly their interest is in discharging vessels more than in providing service to the truckers and importers standing in line. Of course, slow operations discharging vessels will no doubt result in penalties to terminal operators from ship owners. Maybe penalties should be applied by the truckers and importers for excessive wait times?” The economics of terminal operations seem to be based on the number of moves per hour. It is in the terminals’ best interest to move as many containers through the terminal as quickly and efficiently as possible. There can be little doubt that the terminal is strongly in favour of a balance in the number of moves across its gate-open hours. TSI has recently opened selective night shift gate hours at Deltaport and Vanterm based on daily traffic volumes. However it is difficult for most trucking companies to engage drivers without the ability to offer drivers five consecutive nights of work to use these night gates. The terminal argues that congestion can only be relieved if truckers take advantage of non-prime reservations. But even that is a “random” service offered by the terminals with minimal notice that a night gate will be open. Asking truckers to use the 5:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. hours drives considerable extra cost into the system. Importers are not open at night to receive containers, necessitating double drayage and overnight secure storage – all at additional cost to the cargo. All assuming you can get the drivers necessary on the short notice given by the terminals.

Another issue contributing to increased costs, inefficiencies, and a clearly negative environmental impact, is the inability to obtain round trip drayage arrangements. Under the current system you cannot deliver an export container on a reservation and, while at the terminal, pick up an import. You must have a separate reservation for each move. The result is a doubling of traffic at the terminals, and a steady stream of tractors running “empty” chassis back and forth to the terminals. There is no sound reasoning for a system that increases truck traffic, is inefficient, costly, and environmentally unfriendly.

Reports of “improved turnaround times” at the terminals continue to be issued showing the gains the terminals have made. With complaints about the accuracy of the reports, and increasing delays encountered with container deliveries and pickups, these reports fail in every way to reveal the increasing delays and wait times in line ups outside the terminal gates. PMV needs to stop releasing these performance reports until they can accurately reveal how poorly the terminals are operating, providing a complete picture. Why work to improve when the statistics show turnaround times are at record levels of under thirty minutes – which is, of course, measured only after a truck can get a reservation and get in the gate. Let’s measure something meaningful.

The level of frustration is ever increasing. This is not only a problem for freight forwarders, shippers and their truckers but for the industry as a whole. It is impacting and affecting the image and credibility of Port Metro Vancouver, steamship lines, freight forwarders and all stakeholders. It results in unnecessary costs in a still fragile economy. We are already being advised by Members that they have started re-routing cargo through other ports including those in the U.S. Waiting five or six days to retrieve cargo is simply not acceptable. We hope that more progress is made in the coming days, and we applaud PMV for taking the lead in establishing a community meeting with trucking companies, owner operators, drivers, businesses, and community representatives. All participants must come to the table prepared to work towards a solution before Vancouver’s reputation is tarnished beyond recovery.

The above article was reprinted with permission from CIFFA.