A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the transit times from Asia that US importers are facing today. For shipments with a final destination on the US West Coast, it wouldn’t have been too much of an exaggeration to say, that in most cases, importers could set their watches by the carrier published transit times – for example a transit time of 12-15 days for a port to port move from Ningbo to Los Angeles. Importers with cargo routed to inland destinations via rail were used to a little more variability due to the additional mode of transport. However, barring a derailment, mud slide or other anomaly, there still was some predictability even for IPI rail moves. A move to the Midwest heartland from Los Angeles could be counted on to be consistently around 6 – 10 days depending on final destination. So, for IPI cargo a total port to door transit time from Ningbo to the Midwest was usually around 30 – 32 days.
Fast forward to present day and those kinds of transit times, especially those for IPI cargo, sadly are just a distant memory. With so many current bottlenecks and supply chain choke points to contend with, any sort of predictability, let alone consistency, in transit times is simply not possible. This is leaving all supply chain partners – importers, forwarders, truckers, etc. scrambling, guessing, and constantly reacting to the next obstacle to overcome.
So, what is it really like today? To illustrate the challenges and reality of today’s TPEB market, we follow the journey an actual container shipment of bicycles from Ningbo to final delivery in Kansas City and track the shipment from the supplier’s ready date in Ningbo through to the final delivery to the customer in Kansas City.
March 18th: Booking request made with agent and ocean carrier [21 days prior to "Day 0" cargo ready date]
Following current best practices, the supplier made a booking request 3 weeks in advance of their anticipated need. Additionally, the supplier provides regular forecast and updates of their upcoming order ready dates in order to increase probability of securing equipment.
April 8th: Ready and Willin'! [Day 0]
The supplier informs that the goods are ready to be loaded and booking is secured with the ocean carrier.
April 12th: Received at terminal and awaiting loading [Day 4]
April 19th: Slip slidin’ away… the ocean carrier rolls the booking [Day 11]
Booking is delayed one week. As most importers have experienced, a secured booking, even one arranged under premium rates, does not always mean a guaranteed spot on a guaranteed vessel. Impacts from the congestion at US ports also cause ripple effects felt back in China. Additional delays due to vessels “parked” in San Pedro Bay awaiting terminal space will cause further delays to their return to China and ultimately cause export schedules from China to “slide” as a result. In case of this shipment of bicycles, a delay of one week, while not ideal, is not atypical for this challenged market.
April 28th: Loaded onboard and ready for departure to Los Angeles [Day 20]
Considering port congestion and equipment availability at the time, a departure of 20 days from cargo ready date is something both the shipper and consignee should be pleased with – it’s loaded on board an actual vessel after all…. Following the closure of Yantian YICT terminal in May and more recently, COVID related closures in Ningbo – actual turnaround times at Ningbo and other origin ports frequently exceed these times.
May 5th: Finally! - Departure Ningbo [Day27]
Following an additional week’s delay due to sliding departure schedule, our shipment of bicycles is finally on its way.
May 5th to May 20th: Smooth sailing… Ningbo to Arrival at San Pedro Bay, CA [Day 27 -42]
15 days port to port ocean transit time is consistent with historical averages. More recently however, we have seen these times grow as USWC port congestion increases and frequently vessels are “parked” or “adrift” offshore from the ports waiting for a berth to open.
May 21st – May 30th: Parked at San Pedro Bay [Day 43 - 52]
Did we say frequently parked? Indeed, despite sailing within the expected time frame, due to departure delays of the vessel and many others, there is not open space at the terminal to receive the vessel for discharge. Our shipment of bicycles waits, along with many others.
May 30th – June 4th: Vessel Discharge [Day 52]
Upon arrival at the terminal, the container is discharged from the vessel within 5 days. Historically, this could be considered on the longer side but considering the current volume of freight flowing through the ports 5 days is not out of the ordinary under these conditions.
June 4th – August 19th: The Waiting is the Hardest Part…Rail Departure Pending [Day 57 - 133]
Tom Petty described it the best - the waiting IS the hardest part and, in this case, the LONGEST part. Due to port congestion, lack of rail equipment and carrier embargos of IPI destinations, typical rail dwell times on the west coast are averaging up to 30 days. Yes, averaging 30 days. Unfortunately for this container and cargo owner, this container played the “waiting game” for almost 11 weeks, more than five times as long as the ocean journey alone from Ningbo to LA.
August 19th: At last, loaded on Rail and headed towards Kansas City! [Day 133]
August 20th - August 25th: Rail transit to Kansas City [Day 134 - 139]
August 25th: Container of bicycles grounded and available for pick up at the rail [Day 139]
Despite rail terminal congestion, our container of bicycles is available for pick-up promptly upon arrival. This is not always the case. It is not uncommon to wait 7-10 days or more for the container to be offloaded and made available for pick up.
August 25th – 30th: Rail storage and further delays [Day 144]
Despite expectations that the container could be quickly picked up, further delays and costs accrue due to the difficulty of finding chassis equipment to mount the container on as well as a trucker to pick up and deliver the container. Despite processes in place to provide advance scheduling and notification to truckers, it is often the case that either a chassis is not available, or the trucker cannot fulfill the load or both. In any case, its means additional challenges for importers.
September 1st: Home at last – container out gated from rail and delivered [Day 146]
This may be the one positive highlight of this container’s journey when compared to current average inland rail dwell times. For comparison, average rail dwell times in markets including Kansas City and Memphis are closer to 10 days and in Chicago ranging from 20-25 days. Contributing factors include congestion and extreme scarcity of chassis equipment.
126 Days: Yes, you read that correctly! One hundred- and twenty-six-days port to door! That’s over 3.5 times longer than the average transit time for a similar move during pre-pandemic times. Though not meant to suggest that ALL shipments are facing these same transit times and delays – this example is not atypical of the challenges and extended transit times many importers’ containers are subjected to.
Plan for and expect delays at these major types of supply chain bottlenecks
- Origin delays: Port congestion, port and terminal closures, lack of container equipment, lack of available vessel space, vessel delays, schedule blanking.
- Destination port congestion: Port congestion, delays at anchor, delays unloading, carrier embargos on IPI rail cargo.
- Truck and rail connections at port: lack of rail, chassis, and trucking equipment, carrier embargos on IPI rail cargo, railroad ramp closures and “metering” of IPI destined cargo.
- Destination rail ramps: Rail congestion, delays unloading, lack of rail, chassis, and trucking.
So, what to do?
There’s a lot being written recently about Murphy’s Law. That is, if anything can go wrong, it will. During these times it’s wise to plan for and expect the worst. Though 126-day transit times may be less common, we are seeing shipments with similar and even longer times.
- “Green Light” decision making
- Practice patience
Best practice during these times is to plan for and build these longer exceptional transit times into your total lead time and safety stock calculations. As we recommended earlier this year, (DISRUPTIVE FORCES ARE DRIVING NEW THINKING IN INTERNATIONAL LOGISTICS: A 14-POINT GUIDE TO HELP YOU PREPARE), the ability to “green light” quickly and make sure that everyone is aligned is critical to avoiding any additional delays in approving pre-pulls, premiums, rerouting, transloads etc. All those events can set the whole import process back further and of course add further unwanted costs. Communicate your order forecasts in advance with all your supply chain partners – suppliers, forwarders, truckers, vendors and continue to keep them updated. Partner with those you trust and trust that they are doing all they can do to support you and your business during these challenging times. Finally, the hardest part is patience. Have patience with your partners, with yourself and everyone. No one can predict with certainty when this hardship will end, and it will take all of us working together to get through this - no one can do it alone.
During this challenging environment, with current bottlenecks expected continue well into 2022, it’s never been more important to choose and work with the right logistics partner. To see how we can help, or for any questions, contact Brian Martorano, National Director of Business Development, Ocean Import or contact your local sales representative.