Drayage Operators Believe Container Lines Retain Too Much Control Over Chassis

Drayage operators say container lines’ continuing influence over chassis lowers efficiency at ports and is an obstacle to the creation of truck appointment systems at marine terminals. “The ocean carriers are out of the chassis business, but they’re still in it,” said Gerard J. Coyle, vice president of Philadelphia-based Evans Delivery, during a panel discussion at JOC’s 16th annual TPM Conference in Long Beach, California.

During the last several years, container lines have transferred an estimated 90 percent of their U.S. chassis to leasing companies or other entities, in an effort to cut costs. However, ocean carriers continue to specify which lessor’s chassis must be used for “door moves” arranged as a bundled service under carrier-haulage terms. “It’s frustrating,” said Ken Kellaway, CEO of RoadLink IntermodaLogistics. “Steamship lines continue to provide chassis in many of their contracts to anybody that has any volume, and we are therefore prevented from providing our own chassis for those moves. “If the ocean carrier’s specified lessor has no chassis available at a terminal or depot, a drayage operator must supply its own chassis or take one from a different provider – and then try to persuade the ocean carrier to pay for the substitute equipment. “They have to make the decision: Do I eat the cost of that chassis, or do I wait until there is a chassis available that I can use?” said Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Truckers Association at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

If a container’s free storage time at the terminal is about to expire, a trucker may have no choice but to supply or rent its own chassis in order to avoid a demurrage penalty for late pickup of the box. When ocean carriers divested most of their chassis in the U.S., many of the sale agreements contained provisions to ensure that the ship line would still have access to chassis and that lessors would have a market for their newly acquired equipment. These chassis-use provisions were expected to be short-lived, but now that seems to be less certain. A large percentage of intermodal moves still are booked under carrier-haulage terms that require a trucker to use a specific lessor’s equipment or risk having to swallow the cost. Truckers say this can force them to make an extra stop to switch chassis between loads, even at Los Angeles and Long Beach, where the largest chassis pools now cooperate in a “pool of pools” covering the entire port area. “We were told going into the pool of pools that if we liked our chassis, we could keep our chassis, and it’s about the same truth as you heard with Obamacare,” said Fred Johring, president of Golden State Express. Johring and other motor carriers emphasized that the pool of pools has been helpful –  ”a big step forward,” Kellaway said. But they said it would work better if truckers weren’t constrained by ocean carriers’ restrictions on which chassis to use.

Southern California drayage companies say they’ve worked with supply chain partners to minimize the number of mismatches between chassis and door moves, and that it’s now a problem for only a small percentage of shipments. Some truckers also are acquiring their own chassis, usually to serve a large shipper in a what amounts to a closed loop. However, adoption of this strategy has been limited by concerns about longshore union inspections at terminal gates. Container lines’ continued involvement in chassis has complicated efforts to create truck appointment systems at container terminals. Five of the 13 terminals at Los Angeles-Long Beach have appointment systems, and as many as five others plan to implement them this year. The ports of New York-New Jersey and Virginia also are planning appointment systems. Drayage companies are questioning how appointments will work if truckers make an appointment but can’t obtain the proper chassis specified by the ocean carrier. “If there are no chassis, then what do we do?” Coyle asked.