The majority of commodities used by U.S. consumers have made their way through an ocean port at some time, and while drayage has always been important in global shipping, it has historically been an afterthought for many shippers. Now, faced with more challenges and costs, the importance of the container movement in and out of ports and rails has become top of mind for many shippers.
Certainly, the pandemic has played its part in the problem. Congested ports and rails not only in California but across North America have led to longer dwell times and reduce throughput which at times lead to extra demurrage/detention and added inland accessorial fees. But other factors, from chassis and driver shortages to the changing nature of how equipment is managed, have also complicated drayage.
The solution, like the problem itself, is not a simple one. But by rethinking how marine drayage fits into the full scope of their global supply chain and taking a more planned approach to drayage activities, shippers can find some relief, even as challenges persist.
Drayage in the bigger picture
A common misconception about marine drayage is that it’s merely a point-A-to-point-B transaction. But in today’s interconnected supply chains, there are multiple connection points, data exchanges and third parties involved in a container’s journey as it’s shipped from its origin to its final destination — and they all can impact drayage efficiency and cost.
It’s also important to remember that every container has its own story. Shippers need to consider the challenges and constraints each container will face based on the specific trade lane and markets it passes through.
Markets have varying levels of freedom and flexibility when it comes to picking up and returning containers. For instance, in Europe, shippers can pick up a container in one location and return it in another. But in the U.S., shippers generally need to return containers to where they were picked up. This means when routings are changed, you cannot assume that drayage is a viable solution for long-haul moves, regardless of spend.
Box rules, mounting empty containers, and added appointment scheduling requirements across North America also add complexity to the door move. Collaboration, creative solutions, and utilizing the right technology are key to driving efficiencies in this space. Strong alignment and partnerships are critical to managing U.S. inland movement, and we all must do our part to support the marine drayage carrier network and shippers managing these complexities.
What can shippers do?
Clearly, some drayage challenges are outside the control of shippers. But by understanding how drayage fits into the larger supply chain, shippers can take a more comprehensive approach by planning activities, identifying potential upstream or downstream challenges, and using their levers of control to help mitigate risk.
The need for advanced planning has perhaps never been greater than in the last two years. By knowing well in advance what needs to be moved and when, shippers can give marine drayage carriers the advance notice required so they can commit and proactively plan on their end.
Shippers should also work to better understand the various entities they work with before their containers reach dray carriers. A lot of parties can be engaged in a container’s movement — like steamship lines, NVOs, freight forwarders, customs brokers and others. And the more parties involved, the more complicated a container’s journey becomes.
Certainly, shippers should look to streamline the handoffs between all parties to keep containers moving efficiently. But it’s also important that third parties be effective communicators and have the best interests of the shipper or ultimate customer in mind.
Even knowing details about steamship lines can help shippers get ahead of drayage challenges. Knowing in advance what terminal a container is bound for can help shippers understand what conditions or challenges they’ll face downstream. For example, they can identify if the U.S. port of entry has on-dock rail service or if the containers will require a chassis and driver to relocate it to the rail terminal before it continues on its way to an inland rail location.
For containers headed inland, shippers can also identify in advance what rail lines a steamship line has agreements with. For instance, knowing the ocean line-and-rail combination for freight destined to terminate in north Chicago, versus in southern Illinois, can give some shippers a faster delivery time and lower cost to their destinations.
A growing role for technology
As with other supply chain activities, technology can help shippers bring greater order, ease and efficiency to drayage.
One way technology can help is to reduce the administrative burden of drayage. Also, by folding drayage activities into the same technology platform used to track and manage other supply chain activities, shippers can get ahead of problems like equipment shortages and bottlenecks.
Solution providers are also racing to introduce new technologies to help manage a wide range of drayage activities, from finding and procuring dray carriers, managing appointment scheduling, to making payments, and tracking milestones including the return of empty containers.
Still, no new technology will be a “silver bullet” solution for all drayage challenges. Mitigating the risks and resulting high costs that shippers face today will require a greater effort — stop managing drayage as a siloed activity and start viewing it through the lens of the global supply chain.
Jenna Kuehn is director of global forwarding inland at C.H. Robinson.
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