Congestion at U.S. ports continues to ease, but pockets of delays and disruptions remain and continue to cause headaches as peak shipping season unfolds. That’s according to recent industry reports analyzing port conditions in September and October.
The 10 largest U.S. ports saw a 5.5% drop in inbound container volume in September, marking the biggest decline in more than two years, according to the monthly McCown Report, released Wednesday. The decline was driven by a 17% drop in inbound volume on the West Coast over the past 27 months. The report also noted a 24% reduction in ships waiting for berths compared to August, as well as a continued shift in activity from West to East. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach accounted for two-thirds of waiting vessels in January, but now account for just 8%, according to the report. The Ports of Savannah, New York, and Houston had the highest number of waiting ships in September, and cargo volume there continues to rise.
“There was a striking coastal difference [in September] with inbound volume at East/Gulf Coast ports 5.3% above that 27-month average while West Coast ports were 17.6% below that average,” the report’s author, John McCown, wrote. “The strong volume at East/Gulf Coast ports resulted in its seventh strongest performance ever, but the six previous months all showed higher volume.”
Other reports echo those results. Third-party logistics services provider (3PL) ITS Logistics pointed to a host of Gulf Coast challenges this month in its fourth-quarter outlook report, also released Wednesday. The region is dealing with disruptions from Hurricane Ian as well as increased cargo volume as forwarders and importers relocate business to the area, according to the report.
“Consequently, as of this January the port of Houston experienced a 27% rise in TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) tally year-over-year, because of increased container imports,” according to ITS data. “Importers and forwarders are seeking relief in the Gulf because of the availability of drayage services and increased capacity, but ports including Houston, Tampa, and Savannah are being affected by delays as a result of the rising container numbers. This is resulting in a shortage of space, equipment, and chassis.”
Port Houston, where container facilities handle nearly 70% of all U.S. Gulf Coast container traffic, has been hit especially hard, according to Paul Brashier, ITS Logistics’ vice president, drayage and intermodal.
“Houston is seeing higher inbound volumes, a chassis imbalance, and terminal congestion above normal levels,” Brashier said in a press release announcing the report’s findings.
The McCown and ITS reports come on the heels of a freight market outlook that points to continued easing in the trucking sector. On Tuesday, Atlanta-based 3PL AFS Logistics released its Q4 Cowen/AFS Logistics Freight Index, which forecasts declining transportation costs across most modes for the remainder of the year.
The report also shows that inflation and other economic pressures will continue to affect the trucking market, as peak season fuel surcharges continue and carriers prepare for general rate increases in 2023.
Victoria Kickham, an editor at large for Supply Chain Quarterly, started her career as a newspaper reporter in the Boston area before moving into B2B journalism. She has covered manufacturing, distribution and supply chain issues for a variety of publications in the industrial and electronics sectors, and now writes about everything from forklift batteries to omnichannel business trends for Supply Chain Quarterly's sister publication, DC Velocity.