The Ocean Container Rate Crisis - Part 1/3

The impact of the US West Coast congestion on transit times and available ship capacity

Situation

A significant number of ultra large container vessels is currently waiting off the US West Coast Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland. This port congestion is a critical element of the current Transpacific capacity crunch: as long as a severe bottleneck situation persists at the destination port, any measures taken on the ocean part of the voyage, such as increased sailing speed or deployment of additional ships, will be frustrated.

While the sight in San Pedro Bay resembles the usual picture at major Asian hubs like Singapore, this situation is very unusual for the West Coast and waiting times are also significantly higher.

As a result more than 1% of the global container fleet and 6 to 8 % of Transpacific capacity available are currently on anchor off the US West Coast ports, not counting vessels at berth. 

Impact

At the moment ships have to wait on average 10 days before being able to berth at US West Coast ports. To this another roughly 10 days of accumulated delay from previous port calls in Asia (where ports are also congested, although less significantly) can be added. In total this makes for a delay of 20 days on the Transpacific, essentially doubling the usual voyage time. To which another couple of days of land side delay might be added, before the box finally arrives where it is expected.

Outlook

The current port congestion is caused by a combination of two factors, on the one side a very high demand for imported consumer goods and therefore container transports and on the other side terminal operations having been hit severely by COVID 19 outbreaks. Manpower in the docks is currently reduced due to infection prevention measure, quarantines and even longshoremen simply not turning up for work out of fear of getting infected. 

While little short term improvement is to be expected on the demand side, COVID 19 impact could be mitigated by a quick vaccination of workers. First positive news on this arrived yesterday, when the vaccination of the first 800 of the roughly 33 000 West Coast longshoremen was reported, after two weeks of lobbying from port operators, unions and local politicians. At what pace this continues needs to be seen but if there is political support to swiftly carry through with a vaccination of most port workers, the positive impact should be both significant and almost immediate. 

Addendum:

- A recent US Coast guard video published by freightwaves is providing a good picture of the situation. Watch now!

- Capacity figures based on database of Alphaliner.com

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