Containers are now moving in and out of China at record speeds as shippers desperately source capacity, but port congestion problems in Europe and the U.S. continue to slow the return of boxes to Asia, stymying the recovery of global ocean supply chains, a new study shows.
Shipping containers spent an average of just five days at depots in China in 2021 compared to 61 days in 2020, according to a joint report conducted by logistics technology company Container xChange and research organization Fraunhofer – CML. And fellow manufacturing powerhouses Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia also showed rapid box turnarounds last year, with average median times that containers spent in depots of 9, 11, 16, and 19 days, respectively.
However, severe congestion in many destination ports saw container dwell times soar to near-record levels in 2021, the report found. The worst performing countries in terms of the time containers spent in depots in 2021 were the U.S. and the U.K., which suffered average dwell times of 50 and 51 days, respectively. The next worst performers were South Africa (47 days), United Arab Emirates (40 days), Pakistan (31 days), and Germany (25 days).
“Once containers reach Asia, they are being redeployed at record speeds,” Johannes Schlingmeier, co-founder and CEO of Container xChange, said in a release. “However, the mismatch between supply and demand at many origin ports, including in China, means it is hard for U.S. and European importers to always secure boxes unless they have planned ahead, or are working closely with their box supplier, forwarder or container line, to ensure they have both a vessel slot and a container available in advance.”
Those pressures have pushed container shipping rates to record highs, thanks largely to extreme congestion at ports. Identifying specific culprits for those slow port times, the report found that U.S. statistics varied widely by geography. Nationwide dwell times actually improved from 66 days in 2020 to 50 days in 2021, but certain facilities fared much worse than others. New York recorded 61 days of container idle time at depots followed by Houston (59 days) and Savannah (56 days), which were all far slower than Long Beach (42 days) and Los Angeles (40 days).
“Until that congestion is cleared, we’ll continue to have major imbalances in the supply and demand of both vessel capacity and containers,” Schlingmeier said. “As the Omicron variant brings more disruption, with Chinese New Year around the corner and some ports including Ningbo already facing lockdowns, we are expecting a volatile start to the year for ocean freight logistics.”