A new age of mega-ships carrying nearly 18,000 twenty foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers to United States harbors may be just around the corner or many years from now, depending on global economic conditions, but terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have already shown they can handle such massive loads, port officials said.


The San Pedro Bay ports, terminal operators and other stakeholders are investing billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades to increase capacity and efficiency, such as replacing the Gerald Desmond Bridge with a taller span, deepening channels and raising gantry cranes, in anticipation of the giant-sized cargo vessels that industry experts say will eventually become the norm.

The Benjamin Franklin, which carries up to 17,800 twenty foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers, is seen docked at Pacific Container Terminal (PCT), which is operated by SSA Marine at Pier J at the Port of Long Beach. (Port of Long Beach photograph)


Last December, French shipping line CMA-CGM introduced its flagship Benjamin Franklin container vessel to the United States West Coast, calling at the Port of Los Angeles with goods from Asia. The ship returned in February to dock at the Port of Long Beach.


The container vessel, which spans the length of the Empire State Building and reaches 20 stories high, is considered the largest cargo ship to ever call at North America and is part of CMA-CGM’s fleet of six “Great Explorer” 17,800-TEU mega-ships in operation.


The shipping line had planned to deploy its mega-ship fleet in a new route on the Pearl River Express line between Asia and the West Coast starting in May. However, port officials confirmed that CMA-CGM has since deferred those plans, citing unprofitability due to record-low freight rates. Representatives with CMA-CGM declined the Business Journal’s request for comment.


Still, marine terminal operators across the United States acknowledge that larger cargo vessels will be the future of containerization and international trade, said Glenn Farren, director of tenant services and operations at the Port of Long Beach, who adds that the question is not if but when terminal operators should start preparing to be able handle such large vessels.


“All of the terminal operators recognize eventually in the course of the near future with sufficient cargo coming into the United States that most vessels will be that size,” Farren said. “The investment question is, how soon do they have to be prepared?”


Larger vessels provide “economies of scale” for shipping lines, decreasing their per-container shipping costs, according to industry experts. Since such large ships can carry nearly double the cargo in one load as can today’s standard container vessels, which carry about 9,000 to 14,000 TEUs, utilizing the larger vessels enables shipping lines to cut costs in half, Farren said.


The fact that the San Pedro Bay ports are capable of handling such large vessels boosts their competiveness; however, taking on such big ships comes with some added challenges of having to turn larger cargo loads around in a short time frame. And there are other issues, such as how containers are loaded and unloaded.


For the Port of Long Beach, which first saw containerization in the early 1960s when Sea-Land Services started with small 1,000-TEU container vessels, being able to handle the Benjamin Franklin mega-ship, which docked at Pacific Container Terminal (PCT), was a “proof of concept,” showing that the port is ready for the next size of vessels, Farren said. Currently, there are 37 of the 18,000-TEU ships in service worldwide today and 72 on order, he said.


“The terminal was able to quickly and efficiently move the cargo off of the ship and out of the terminal in a very short period of time,” he said, adding that the water was deep enough, cranes were large enough and there was plenty of skilled labor available while yard, gate and rail operations were “well organized.”


Farren said PCT has recently raised a number of its cranes to be able to reach high enough to accommodate the larger vessels. The terminal has also undergone an annual dredging maintenance project for a 47-foot water depth, which required a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dredging provides waters deep enough for larger ships to pass.


Other terminal operators at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are making major investments in increasing capacity and efficiency while applying environmentally sensitive and innovative cargo handling solutions, such as using electrically powered equipment.


Sean Lindsay, chief operating officer for the International Transportation Service (ITS) terminal at the Port of Long Beach, told the Business Journal in an e-mail that the terminal operator has purchased four new super post-panamax “ship-to-shore” cranes that are to be delivered this year. The new cranes have both the vertical lift height and outreach to load and discharge mega-ships, he said.


The terminal is also in the process of relocating three existing cranes and demolishing four obsolete cranes in an effort to ensure that the terminal’s container berths are equipped with cranes capable of supporting larger cargo vessels, Lindsay said.


ITS is also working with the Port of Long Beach to lengthen berths, introduce high-density cargo handling equipment and increase on-dock rail capacity, all which require significant investment in infrastructure and equipment, while simultaneously focusing on innovative technologies and environmental initiatives.


“The final vision is a high-density, zero-emission container terminal capable of servicing the mega-ships of today and tomorrow,” Lindsay said. “ITS is committed to doing business in an environmentally responsible manner.”


Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said the port last year handled two mega-ships, CMA’s Benjamin Franklin and American-based Maersk Line’s Edmonton, at the same time.


He said the port’s preparedness for mega-ships has been a long time coming, beginning nearly 30 years ago when former port and government officials early on instituted a vision to deepen channel ways, widen turning basins and fortify wharfs.


In the case of the Benjamin Franklin, the port was able to obtain the ship’s loading plan nearly two weeks in advance of the ship leaving Busan, South Korea, for the Port of Los Angeles, allowing the port to better plan with stakeholders, Seroka said.


He added that digitizing supply chain data points is of paramount importance and information needs to be harnessed in a more succinct fashion to be able to handle the large vessels.


Marine terminals with deep-water capabilities in the San Pedro Bay ports also need to continue investing in capital programs to upgrade infrastructure, he said, adding that the ports’ ability to handle mega-ships is so far unmatched by any port in the United States.


“Being a port of choice for the larger ships must be demonstrated on a regular basis to the shipping line companies,” Seroka said. “There’s some work happening today [at other ports], but there are only two ports in the United States that can handle the larger ships that are attempting to call at U.S. shores and that’s Long Beach and Los Angeles.”