By Alan M. Field

Across North America, managing the flow of trucks to and from port terminals is a major challenge for everyone involved in the process, including the cities and communities in which major ports operate. “The drivers, the ports, the port customers, and the public would all benefit from greater truck efficiency and reduced truck impact,” notes Dan Smith, a principal at Tioga Group, a Philadelphia-based consultancy that provides freight transportation consulting services. “Trucking companies and their drivers pursue efficiency but can be frustrated by congestion, delays, detours, and stoppages on port approach routes and port-area roads.”

Few ports, except for Prince Rupert and Seattle, enjoy an exclusive port road network; most share surface streets and highways with their host cities. Thus, “reliable, timely information regarding current or expected traffic conditions can be a useful tool for drayage firms seeking efficiency and ports seeking to sustain their ‘social license’ to operate in busy and sensitive communities.”

What kinds of initiatives are being developed at major Canadian and U.S. ports to help achieve these goals? A new report, written by Smith and published by the Asia-Pacific Gateway Skills Table, a non-profit, Vancouver-based regional partnership between labour, business and education/training institutions, analyzes how and why ten North American ports – including Canada’s Port Metro Vancouver and Montreal — have chosen various electronic technologies to help their trucking companies and drivers make more informed decisions about:

• When to go to which port terminal, and for what purpose.

• What route to use in each direction.

• How to combine trip legs in the most efficient multi-stop trip, and

• How much time to allow for such trips.

“It’s not a Canadian versus U.S. difference,” says Smith. “Every major port has some area where it is pushing hard, and some area where it might be behind. Everyone is pursuing slightly different goals,” whether in Canada or the U.S. or Europe (as represented by the Port of Hamburg in the report.)

The benefits of establishing such communication systems are being carefully studied by other ports of various sizes throughout North America, says Jonathan Kassian, Project Manager at Asia Pacific Gateway Skills Table (APGST), which commissioned the report to assess whether additional training was required for terminal drivers. “Truck flow to and from ports makes a big difference for the competitiveness of marine terminals, and for their relationships with cities and the surrounding communities,” said Krista Bax, Executive Director of APGST. “Communications technologies present proven solutions to improve truck efficiency and reduce impacts, and we wanted to document a range of technology options that can help gateway industries maximize the effectiveness of their labor supply.”

It’s unclear how drivers and terminal managers will respond to the full menu of technological options laid out in the new report [January 2016] by APGST. Louise Yako, President and Chief Executive of the B.C. Trucking Association, explains. “In the end, [the researchers] concluded that there was no need for any additional training [for drayage drivers]. So while the study is interesting, I don’t think it will have any impact” on training activity right away. She added, “I don’t think there is anything controversial about the study. Companies make choices about how they are going to communicate with their drivers based on their needs. Because there is such a wide variety [of technologies] available, some companies feel overwhelmed when trying to make the right decision.”

The impact of local pressures

Different ports have led the way when it comes to developing the various kinds of technologies and systems outlined in the report. “A lot of it depends on what local pressures that port is facing,” says Smith. For example, Smith notes that when Oakland started its real-time communication initiatives, they were under extreme pressure during the worst period of the U.S. West Coast port congestion in 2014-5. “All the ports were being affected. Oakland had a particular problem because they had a labour shortage so they had vessels waiting in the harbour. So Oakland is the only one that puts out information about vessel status. The information they provide is about the location of the vessels that are waiting; because that was critical for Oakland at that time.”

Likewise, take a look at the very elaborate Hamburg system, and you’ll see that they have a problem with truck circulation and truck parking; so Hamburg is the only port that transmits information about where parking is available and also gives information about regional routes; not just information about the main terminals but also the status of bridges and the main toll ways.

This latest APGST report is an adjunct to an earlier report by that organization in September 2015, which surveyed the receptivity of truck drivers in Vancouver to using various kinds of new technologies. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the earlier report showed that younger drivers were more receptive than older drivers to the range of new technologies used in North American ports. Moreover, even older drivers proved to be quite receptive to using new technologies that could save time, cost less money, and reduce mistakes, noted Kassian. However, in a recent survey of 413 drayage drivers and 32 employers in Canada, nearly half of those drivers (49 per cent) said they never or rarely checked traffic and port conditions prior to their drayage trips. Moreover, most (58 per cent) were not even aware that this information was available on the website of the Port of Montreal; proving, once again, that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot always make him drink what he needs.

The following is an overview of developments at Canada’s largest container ports:

Port of Montreal banks on OCR and RFID

Across much of North America, ports that used to be relatively isolated in big city areas are no longer isolated from congested urban areas. For example, Vancouver’s older terminals are right next to the city centre now, notes Smith. “Even thirty years ago, we’d find railroad tracks and industrial areas that buffered the port from the downtown. Right now, within a few blocks of those marine terminals there is the high-rent financial district. Seattle has very much the same issue. Los Angeles and Long Beach are a little bit more buffered, but there still are a lot of developed areas near the port. As the land areas fill in, and as everything becomes more congested, everything becomes more valuable. You go from having just industrial areas near the port to having commercial, retail and even residential areas near the ports, so the issue of truck circulation becomes more and more sensitive,” he adds.

The port of Montreal has a little bit more of a buffer, notes Smith. It is not right next to downtown. Montreal has three container terminals: Racine, Maisonneuve, and Cast; and a fourth, Viau, is in the development stage. The Montreal terminals are located between the waterway and developed commercial, industrial, and residential areas. The key roadway dividing these areas is rue Notre-Dame East. This route is subject to congestion and delay, and one objective of the GHG program is to reduce congestion and idling on that route. The areas around the port are developing and they need to develop a relationship between the truck circulation and the surrounding land uses, cautions Smith.

Montreal’s program is centered around its program to reduce the carbon footprint of the port operation. Their system is focused on helping truckers optimize their trips, in order to minimize idling and queuing, so as to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, Port of Montreal is in the process of implementing truck traffic information features as part of its broader Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction initiative. The Port is expanding its network of RFID readers and license plate readers (LPRs), combining the two technologies to measure and report truck travel and processing times. This strategy will enable the Port to generate and communicate current travel and wait times, and produce performance indicators for management and planning use.

The Port divides the truck approach and exit process into four segments:

• Pre-port admission at an OCR/RFID (Optical Character Recognition/Radio Frequency Identification) gate;

• Trucker entry point for RFID and identity validation;

• Terminal entry, and

• Terminal exit.

The information can be “pushed” in real time to the motor carrier industry.

Looking to the future, plans call for communicating current wait and route segment times to truckers at the port via SMS text or a mobile app that is deemed appropriate. The Port is also exploring a further expansion of its data collection network via strategically placed bluetooth sensors in the surrounding road network. Finally, the Port also has a webcam system in place.

Now Montreal is planning to add bluetooth (a short-range communications technology) to its existing system. Montreal is already using license plate recognition systems, an available technology when bluetooth was emerging as a useful technology. “There is a lot of Canadian experience in using license plate recognition [LPR] technology,” notes Smith. “It was first used several years ago.” These systems use reflective technology – so you can read the plate even if it has mud or snow on it. Last year, several camera technologies were launched that allowed 1080p HD video to be captured by cameras and transmitted to a DVR using coax cable. Just like traditional analog CCTV cameras, these HD CCTV cameras are hard-wired using coaxial cables. Depending on their intended purpose, they are available to capture license plate images from vehicles traveling as fast as 105 kilometres an hour.

What are the benefits of adding bluetooth to Montreal’s roster of useful technologies? If a port is careful about where it places its bluetooth detectors, explains Smith, it can track the progress of the bluetooth-equipped smartphone in the cab of a trucker as it moves through port roads into the marine terminal, and then out through the exit gate. It can chart precisely how much time it takes for its drayage drivers to move through each terminal at each time of day – and then implement time-saving measures.

Port Metro Vancouver: an online dashboard of electronic technologies

Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) is a landlord port with four marine container terminals: Centerm and Vanterm are located adjacent to downtown Vancouver and have two access points; Deltaport is located to the southwest, and is accessed from the regional highways; and Fraser Surrey Docks is located on the south bank of the Fraser River, accessed over surface routes. “Vancouver is ahead of the curve in implementing various technologies,” says Kassian. He stressed the capabilities of its online dashboard, which incorporates a wide range of technologies, including Twitter, e-mail, and a signboard on site at the port.

PMV has pioneered the use of GPS data, mandating the use of GPS units on trucks. Its preferred channel for communicating traffic and terminal condition information to truckers is its on-line GPS Dashboard, which displays current and recent turn times, features a comments section, and communicates terminal-specific information such as lane closures or service interruptions.

PMV maintains two Twitter accounts, one for general port announcements and one for operations-related messages ( The operations Twitter account is most frequently used to inform truckers and other port stakeholders about access-road blockages for railway switching movements, and less often, about vehicular traffic issues.

Challenges remain. Smith notes that the main access route to the DP Vancouver (Centerm) and Global (Vanterm) terminals is crossed by railway tracks in multiple locations. As he explains in the report, “There are typically multiple switching movements across the road each day that can block truck movements for a few minutes at a minimum and sometimes for extended periods. PMV’s Operations Centre receives notification of planned switching movements from railway personnel, and uses this guidance and monitors PMV webcams to determine when and where the switching movements begin and end. The information is provided on the PMV website and via Twitter.” The payoff: “With this information on rail access road blockages, drivers and dispatchers can choose alternate access route, allow extra time to comply with an appointment window, or allow extra time to return from the terminal to a customer, for example.”

PMV is very careful about using tweets as a channel of communication because re-tweeting can spread messages far beyond their intended audiences. In extreme cases, tweets relayed to foreign vessel operators can also be mistranslated, misinterpreted, or taken out of context. The 104-character tweets are suitable for short, concise messages readily understood by a regular audience of followers. PMV might, for instance, use Twitter to inform truckers of an incident-related road closure, but not to inform the public of a labor disruption.

PMV’s third communication channel is its ‘changeable message signs’ (CMS). By agreement with the regional transportation authority, TransLink, PMV can post messages at TransLink-controlled CMS locations leading to the port. Relevant messages might include road closures, unusual delays, or detours. PMV also has two CMS installations of its own within 1km of port entry points. These CMSs are ordinarily blank, but can be used for port-specific messages as required. By reciprocal agreement, TransLink can post messages on the PMV CMSs. As with most ports, PMV’s website also provides images from webcams that cover terminal gates, approaches, and waiting areas. The webcams can be useful to drayage dispatchers concerned about current conditions.

In the U.S., Port of Oakland has a pilot program for using bluetooth data, now that nearly everyone in the terminal has a smartphone with bluetooth capability. Some day, notes Smith, “pretty much every truck driver in Oakland will have a smartphone with a unique bluetooth signature — so long as it is turned on — and there will be bluetooth detectors [in the port] that will recognize that smartphone.” The system recognizes when this or that bluetooth device has passed this or that point in the terminal; and it can pick up that signal later and later, elsewhere in the terminal. That way, everyone at the Port will be able to gather accurate, up-to-date information about queue times and gate turn-times.

Frank Harder, President of Tioga Group, said that when it comes to addressing congestion at terminals, automated systems “promise to resolve some of those problems and produce efficiencies” for terminal operators and truckers, while also producing shorter turn times, “which will help with management of the queues. The peak in the early morning is one of the causes of long turn times.” The third beneficiaries of these systems will be the public. Explained Harder, “Long queue lines produce emissions, and that’s a problem for our industry.”

Each of these technologies has its own unique learning curve. “You install them, you get some problems, and then after a period of months or years, you get a working system,” notes Smith. “The learning curve is steepest where you start integrating these systems together. Many U.S. ports [Long Beach, Los Angeles; New York/New Jersey, Oakland) are using RFID systems to recognize tractors that are recognized in the system.” Most ports now have a registry of tractors that are allowed into the terminals; and in many cases, those trucks have met emission standards and qualify for an RFID tag. But “if you show up without an RFID tag, you don’t get into the terminal.”

Although each port is also working on its highest priority problems, “We’ve been impressed by the willingness of these ports to share the data with other ports; even though, on one level, all of these ports are competing” with one another, says Smith. “Nobody is claiming to have a secret; nobody is withholding information about what they’ve learned. In fact, they seem very willing to share with other ports and other regions [what they have learned about] what works and what doesn’t work” in their own port.

A formal information-sharing network exists within the various terminals at the huge Port of New York/New Jersey. Launched last August, Terminal Information Portal System [TIPS] was developed by Sustainable Terminals Services Inc. (STS), which is a nonprofit consortium of six port terminal operators at New York/New Jersey. TIPS compiles information from all six of those container terminals and makes the data available to qualified users in real-time over the Internet. That way, information about container availability, booking status, vessel schedules and empty container-return location information are available on a single online portal.

In Canada, the most remarkable example of information sharing among neighbouring terminals is within the Vancouver region, notes Smith, where the various projects being undertaken and completed by local, provincial and national authorities are all aligned and are all “pulling in tandem.” While visiting an annual conference of the British Columbia Trucking Association in 2012, Smith was impressed that all of the local projects under discussion there “were coordinated, and that things were definitely moving forward; these were not just plans but projects funded, planned and completed. There were bridges, rail linkages, local highways, technologies.” In the United States, he said, “we do not have anything comparable to that alignment, all the way up [from the local to national level] when it comes to supporting the ports. There is not any mechanism for prioritizing and planning on a coastal basis [in the U.S.]; never mind, on a national basis.” The Asia Pacific Gateway is a coordinated, tri-level program that supports the development of Canada’s Asian gateways, including Vancouver and the Port of Prince Rupert.

For its part, Port of Prince Rupert has unique challenges that cannot be addressed by implementing the kinds of communications technologies employed at Montreal, Vancouver or other conventional ports, says Smith. Entirely served by rail, Prince Rupert is a land bridge operation that involves no trucks. The technologies that are being used in Prince Rupert’s rail operations – wide-span cranes and automation – are used in the really big rail terminals in the U.S., such as BNSF Memphis and BNSF Seattle, but not ports that are linked to the outside world primarily by trucking fleets.

Halifax Port Authority: EDI feeds, but no cameras, GPS or RFID

Meanwhile, on February 10, Halifax Port Authority, the largest port in Atlantic Canada, announced that it is offering an enhanced web-tracking tool for importers and exporters moving containers through the its container terminals, which are operated by Ceres-Halifax Inc. and Halterm Container Terminal Ltd. The port’s existing web site, Halifax Gets It There (, has been updated to include several new features designed to make life easier for importers and exporters who do business through the Port of Halifax. The enhancements “are the direct result of feedback from the market’’ regarding the performance of the site, announced the Port Authority.

The website now provides information about container visibility after vessel discharge (import) or before vessel loading (export). Each container’s status is tracked by EDI (electronic data interchange) as it moves through the supply chain (vessel/terminal/ intermodal/truck process). The enhanced container tracking tool allows importers and exporters to track a container by setting automated alerts that are sent back to shippers by e-mail or SMS. Users can enter a single container number or upload a larger list of files and identify the specific alerts they wish to receive. Most of Halifax’s cargo originates or terminates in central Canada and the U.S. Midwest, and much of Halifax’s imports and exports move by rail to and from those key markets Explains Lane Farguson, communications advisor for the Halifax Port Authority. “We receive updated data via FTP as it is made available to us, and it is housed on our local server. That server populates the website daily. There are no cameras, GPS [systems] or RFID tags.”

Lessons from the report

“There is a wide range of impartial information available about options that are feasible at different levels of cost”

“This report demonstrates that there is a lot of low hanging fruit on the technology tree to address port truck congestion issues,” said Daniel Dagenais, Vice-President Operations, Montreal Port Authority. “Information Technology and social media enable port managers with simple and highly efficient broadcasting tools to influence truck routing patterns and preserve fluidity at our gates.” Just as important, it’s neither costly nor intellectually very demanding to set up such programs, if your terminals have yet to do so. Kassian at the Asia-Pacific Gateway Skill Table says, “There is a wide range of impartial information available about options that are feasible at different levels of cost” in the report published by his organization. Adds Smith, the author of the report, “These trucker information systems are very easy to start because much of the information that is being sent out is already available some place. You have metropolitan, state/provincial, state/provincial DOTs [transport bureaus]; lots of people are putting traffic information out there. And most ports are in touch with conditions at their marine terminals – so the threshold for getting information that you already have out to the truckers is already low.” Besides all that, he adds, “It doesn’t cost anything to send texts; or to send twitter feeds; it costs basically nothing to send out e-mails. So a port can start one of these systems by just getting one person to sit down, see what information is already available, picking out the items that are important to the truckers serving the port; and getting that information out daily, or bulletins as needed.

Port logistics consultant Dan Smith of Tioga Group suggest keeping these key points in mind when you begin an implementation in your terminal:

Focus on what kinds of information matter the most for your stakeholders: One of the biggest hurdles is choosing which kinds of messages you want to get out. Will your port send out only information about its own operations? Or about the conditions of major highways coming into the port? For example, the Port of New York/New Jersey is responsible for the tunnels and toll roads around that port so, in fact, within their organization they already collect a great range of the information that would be relevant to truckers. As a result, “they could get out that information more easily than would another port that doesn’t have that internal connection,” notes Smith.

Build awareness: Build a recipient list and inform truckers about how they can sign up to get the information, whether e-mails or whatever. You need get enough penetration so that the system is regularly used and people get feedback about what is working and what is not. Remember that all these systems have learning curves – and they can morph in unpredictable new ways. Smith has seen systems that start out as basically traffic information systems and then start adding terminal information. But some systems have started out, on the contrary, as providers of terminal information, and then added traffic information. “The key is that the threshold for getting these systems started is very low. You don’t have to spend millions of dollars and spend months and months of planning,” he stresses.

The biggest benefits go to those truckers and drivers who are relatively new to the port and who don’t know the roads and the systems and don’t see the implication of these challenges.

The ability to get out information quickly about specific incidents is very important. For example, if you have a construction project that is going to force trucks to detour and take a different route into the port, then getting out that information is very useful to everyone involved. Make sure that can happen reliably. Or if you have a terminal whose gate systems have gone down, or have a power outage or software problem, it is important to let people know that the gates can’t process – or can only process very slowly or only manually. The more information you can get out to the truck drivers, the better choices can be made.

Expect a challenging learning curve. As your users learn, your system will also be changed to reflect the tweaks in the technology and you users’ growing awareness of the capabilities of the system. Technology systems “are not static,” Smith says. “As conditions change, the vessels change, the assignment of vessels to different terminals changes, the terminal gate complexes change, and the processing systems change. It’s by no means a static industry.” And one of the challenges is, if you put any kind of system in place, how you can retain sufficient flexibility so that system stays dynamic and efficient even as things are continuing to change. Remember that this kind of implementation is a balancing act between flexibility and predictable functionality. “One challenge involves continuing to refine these systems and improve them; but it is another kind of challenge is to eventually start to integrate them into port-wide systems. So, instead of having six appointment systems for six terminals, you have one port-wide system.” That, in turn, brings with an even higher level of challenge. “Now you have to get the terminals to start adopting uniform business practices and get their systems to communicate. That’s tough, but Port Metro Vancouver has a project that is moving in that direction.”