Marine terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach that have collaborated with cargo interests and truckers on creative programs such as dray-offs and free-flow of containers recorded the best gate turn times in January, according to data published by the Harbor Trucking Association. But even those gains weren’t able to speed overall truck turn times much at the top U.S. container port complex.

The HTA each month collects turn-time data from hundreds of trucks equipped with GPS devices as part of its on-going truck mobility project. The association reports turn-time data for all 13 container terminals in the harbor. Time is measured from when the truck arrives in the queue outside the gate until the truck leaves through the exit gate.

Overall turn times appear to be in a rut. The average truck visit in January was 91 minutes. Average visit times have ranged between 88 and 91 minutes since April 2015. That’s when the ports were returning to normal following the congestion that accompanied the coastwide longshore contract negotiations of 2014-15.

Although average turn times have been stuck in the 90-minute range, some terminals in the largest U.S. port complex have noticeably better turn times, but others have much longer turn times than the average. Weston LaBar, executive director of the HTA, said it is becoming apparent that those terminals that work closely with cargo interests and truckers to speed trucks through their facilities outperform the others.

“The terminals with the best turn times are the ones that have a lot of dialogue with the truckers, rather than trying to do it alone,” he said.

SSA Marine operates three terminals in Long Beach, Matson, Pacific Container Terminal and Pier A. The average truck-visit time at those terminals is much shorter than at most of the other terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor.

SSA for the past decade has been draying imported containers from the terminals to a near-dock yard it operates as soon as the containers are discharged from the vessels. Ed DeNike, chief operating officer, said SSA works with truckers and cargo interests in a number of areas, but dray-offs are “95 percent” of the reason why its turn times are shorter than those at most terminals.

The average turn time at the terminal that SSA operates with Matson Navigation Co. was 33 minutes, by far the best in the harbor. Matson is a special case because it is a single-user terminal served by smaller ships in a closed loop arrangement. However, PCT, with an average turn time of 72 minutes, and Pier A, at 62 minutes, are the same as other terminals in the harbor. They are served by mega-ships carrying the containers of multiple lines operating in vessel-sharing alliances.

Similarly, another program initiated last year known as free flow, or peel off, is beginning to produce results. Free flow is somewhat more complex than dray-offs because multiple importers must work closely with the trucking company and terminal operator in order to generate a critical mass of inbound containers.“When you have to pick and choose from a pile, you will have problems,” said Mike DiBernardo, deputy executive director of marketing and customer relations at the Port of Los Angeles.

Since the operations at PCT and Pier A are as complex as those at other terminals, it appears that draying inbound containers immediately upon discharge to a near-dock site, without regard to destination or consignee, is driving cargo velocity at the terminals. This operation is much different than at more traditional terminals where truck drivers arrive at the facilities to pick up specific containers, which seem invariably to be located at the bottom of a stack of containers.

The program began when West Basin Container Terminal in Los Angeles worked with TTSI to recruit the trucking company’s beneficial cargo owners to participate. When the containers of participating BCOs are discharged from the vessel, they are segregated in a pile. The BCOs and the trucking company are notified that the containers are available for pickup. When the truckers arrive at the terminal, they are directed to the peel-off pile and they are immediately given a container without regard to destination. The containers are drayed to a near-dock yard for pickup and delivery to the destination.

John Cushing, president of PierPass Inc., which manages the extended gates program in Los Angeles-Long Beach on behalf of the terminal operators, said the past year’s experience with free-flow has helped the participants to improve the program so that the critical mass needed to trigger a free-flow operation has been reduced to about 50 containers, down from 72 to 80 when the program began.

“Most of the terminals are doing peel off now,” Cushing said. The average visit time at West Basin in January was 75 minutes. He noted that PierPass’ January numbers for in-terminal visit times at the 13 container facilities show trucks spent an average of 45.5 minutes from gate-in to gate-out during the day shifts and 49 minutes during the night shifts. That was the best day-shift performance since last April, he said.

The ports and terminal operators want to further expand participation in free flow, but in order to do so they must locate additional properties for near-dock dray-off yards. Vacant land is not easy to find in a harbor that last year handled more than 15 million 20-foot container units, but the ports are cobbling together available parcels. DiBernardo said Los Angeles is engaged in an environmental impact study on the site of a former coal-transfer facility that it hopes to turn into a peel-off yard.

An even higher level of performance is anticipated at the two automated terminals, TraPac in Los Angeles and Middle Harbor in Long Beach, as those facilities work with truckers to adjust to the new processes that are involved in an automated terminal. Anthony Otto, president of the terminal operator, told an HTA meeting last week that Middle Harbor should have the fastest turn times in the harbor as the terminal and trucking community adjust to the new system this summer.

Automation is considered the ultimate remedy for turn-time delays because it separates street truck traffic from vessel traffic, said Larry Nye, vice president of port planning at Moffatt & Nichol. Container stacks run perpendicular between the vessel and the terminal gate, unlike a conventional facility where the stacks are parallel. Therefore, trucks travel only a short distance when they enter the gate to the landside head of the stack. They remain separated from the dozens of yard tractors that are shuttling containers from the vessel to the waterside of the stacks.

Also, Nye noted, each stack has a mixture of loaded inbound containers, export containers and empties, allowing most truckers to drop off an export container or empty and to pick up an imported container at the same stack. Drivers engaging in a dual transaction at the same location in the terminal have much faster turn times than the conventional method of dropping off an outbound container or empty at one stack and then proceeding to another location to receive the inbound load.

Some terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach in January continued to struggle, due in most cases to construction programs that hampered truck access or to unusually high container volumes. Long Beach Container Terminal has been under constant construction as it works toward the April opening of Middle Harbor, and its average turn time was 103 minutes. APM Terminals’ Pier 400 was processing large container surges from the 15,000-TEU Maersk Edmonton and the 18,000-TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin that arrived over the Christmas holidays and had average turn times of 125 minutes in January.

The port and trucking communities expect average turn times throughout the harbor to improve in the coming year as terminal operators expand their free-flow programs, implement mandatory trucker appointment systems to manage traffic flow and share other best practices with each other. “The terminals should integrate the best practices from the good terminals,” LaBar said. “All of the terminals should want to do a good job because at the end of the day they all benefit,” he said.