Size and speed powers the Port of Baltimore to success

Larry Johnson, Sales Manager of Trade Development, Automotive at the Port of Baltimore tells Simon Duval Smith about the infrastructure, partnerships and challenges at North America’s greatest automotive port

The Port of Baltimore has been the number one automotive port in the US for the last seven years, for both imports and exports. This has been enabled by a combination of public and private terminals. Its success is greatly due to the set-up of the port; it is a 'landlord port' and while the port authority owns a lot of the facilities, including the piers and its largest terminal, Dundalk Marine Terminal. On the south side of the harbour, AMPORTS owns some land of its own which it uses for vehicle processing, at the Atlantic and Chesapeake terminals. 

Location, location, location
Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson says that as well as the cooperative set-up of the port it is also it's proximity to the mid-west markets and OEMs that makes it so attractive. "If you look at it purely geographically, we are some 90 miles closer to Detroit and Chicago than ports in New York are. As automakers are always looking hard at the cost of getting vehicles to ports for export and of getting import vehicles to their dealer network as quickly as possible, using Port of Baltimore means lower rail and trucking costs. Also all the major shipping lines, ocean carriers, call here. Everyone from Hoegh, MOL, all the Japanese carriers, Wallenius Wilhelmsen and more. 
“This gives our OEM customers a wide choice of shipping lines plus we also have five vehicle processing companies here. These are AMPORTS, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions, AWC, and Mercedes-Benz have their own processing centre here at our Masonville Terminal. We also have Pasha who have an operation at the Trade Point Atlantic, in the old Sparrows Point area."

The QCHAT Programme

The Quality Cargo Handling Action Team (QCHAT) is another key reason for the Port of Baltimore’s long-standing success in autos. Each month, key auto supply chain representatives including labour, port, ocean carrier, manufacturers and auto processors meet and discuss the previous month’s performance and ways to improve auto handling. This unique programme has been repeatedly recognised within the auto industry.

Investment and expansion

Building and maintaining such a large port, with its warehouses, distribution centres and other facilities, is costly and demands a great deal of will and commitment from not only the port authority but also the local and state government as Johnson tells me. "We have a couple of projects going on now and activities like these are helped by what we call a 'tiger grant', funds that come directly from the federal government and of course we get help from the State of Maryland as we are a division of the State Department of Transportation." 

As noted previously, Port of Baltimore already provides processing buildings, body shops, car washes and other facilities for OEMs and processors, I ask Johnson if there are plans for expansion of docking and preparation facilities - does the port have room to grow? He says that there are some plans for expansion. "We have a couple of projects underway, we have what is known as the 'wet basin', an area of some eight acres near Child Street, next to the AWC area at Fairfield Terminal. This will likely be coming online next year. There is also the slip over near to Mercedes-Benz's operation at Masonville, that will be coming online in about a year and a half. In addition, AMPORTS has a couple of developments going on on their own land, on the south side of the harbour." 

People power the port

Working on the docks in any country and state has changed a great deal over the years, with greater job security and improving conditions making the work more attractive. The Port of Baltimore has been working extensively on reaching out to educational establishments to promote the port as a great place to work and I ask Johnson about these initiatives and about the general labour situation. He says that finding good people is no problem in all departments, from dockworkers to IT, sales and marketing, accounting and engineering. "We don't have problems with getting great people, the dockside jobs are very sought after and we have a very low turnover of staff in all areas. We have a good diversity of workers from all levels of education so I think our recruitment efforts, working with the colleges and schools, are really paying off."

Security and integrity

Security has often been spoken of as a major problem at ports, with varying instances of theft and damage over the history of shipping and handling vehicles. I ask Johnson what policies does the Port of Baltimore have in place to help OEMs feel their vehicles are secure. He is very confident about the port's security and employee integrity. "We have very good security; in the US, the US Coastguard is responsible for security at all ports, they set the guidelines for this. Here at Port of Baltimore every person must have an ID to get on to the port premises, a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card and they must have a Port of Baltimore ID card. Visitors are limited to five visitors to one TWIC holder, their escort. 

EV and fuel cell infrastructure

Fuel cell vehicles and EVs are intended to be the 'vehicles of tomorrow' and you may have read in our report on the Port of Long Beach how Toyota plans to bring a large and powerful fuel cell plant of some 2.3 megawatts to that facility. I ask Johnson about EV charging facilities at the Port of Baltimore and whether there are hydrogen fuel cell refuelling stations to carmakers in the future. "We already have 10 or 12 charging stations on the Dundalk Marine Terminal for the Tesla cars that we get coming through the port. We don't have hydrogen fuelling facilities but if the demand from our customers comes, it may be something that we have to consider."

Rail connections and speeding up transfers

Several carmakers, processors and port operators have talked of delays in moving vehicles out due to slow rail connections, rolling stock not being in the right place at the right time but Johnson says that he does not come across this issue. "We don't have these problems; the Norfolk Southern rail lines at Dundalk come right into the terminal. We get a lot of Ford vehicles coming in by rail and they are unloaded right there at Dundalk and then go into the line, get processed and move to the discharge area to get loaded onto a ship. On the south side of the harbour, on the west side of Child Street, where the Fairfield and Masonville terminals are located, in areas that are owned by us, anything on the east side is AMPORTS. There is a CSX line there at what is called the Seewall yard, where the railcars come in. This yard is used a lot by Chrysler, the OEM brings a lot of its cars here, those that are railed here for export. On the import side, the Jeep Renegade that we receive comes from Italy on Grimaldi ships and these are railed out of the port."

Finding the right vehicle first time

Some OEMs have talked of their truck drivers complaining of having difficulty finding vehicles for collection quickly and say that they might spend time trying to locate a vehicle by 'clicking' the remote key fob to see its indicator lights (turn signals) flash. This method seems somewhat at odds with the connected technology increasingly embedded in the latest vehicles. I ask Johnson about his experience of yard management problems and what can be done to alleviate these issues. He says that Port of Baltimore has given the processors enough space to have their own dedicated 'haulaway' trucking areas where vehicles can be collected in the right order for transporter collection. "Most of the time the processor will marshal the cars in a particular spot for the haulaway truckers to go and get. Searching for vehicles does happen on occasion but I don't hear of a lot of problems with this. AMPORTS has their own area at Dundalk and WW has a marshalling area too." 

The big picture - challenges and solutions at ports

I ask Johnson what he sees as the greatest challenges facing ports and port operators in North America at present and in the future, bearing in mind the changing nature of vehicle technology and of buyers' tastes moving to SUVs and pickups in the wake of falling petrol prices. Johnson cites two challenges that affect the running of the port. "The day-to-day, month-to-month challenges that I face, as being the person in charge of all the vehicles coming in and out of the port, are space and flow. As regards space, the Dundalk Marine Terminal and the ones on the south side: Atlantic, Chesapeake, Masonville and Fairfield are all pretty landlocked. So space is sometimes an issue; we have a lot of overflow lots at Dundalk, AMPORTS and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions have their acreage there and around the edges, we have some overflow lots to use as needed. To best use these facilities, my major focus is dwell time. The process should run like this: a vehicle comes in, it gets discharged, it gets processed and goes to the load line and a haulaway trucker takes it away to a dealer. This is the correct flow, something that we must try to maintain. We don't want our facility to become a parking lot.

"Dwell can be increased by such events as factory holds and quality holds. A vehicle may have to sit here for three months until a dealer wants it and of course, the problem is that there is another ship full of vehicles coming right behind it."

One major factor in extra dwell time is the North American car buying model; unlike in Europe and many other markets where car buyers specify their vehicle in some detail and are happy to wait for it to be built and delivered to their specification, the US buyer expects to walk on to a dealer forecourt and find many permutations of the vehicle they desire and to be able to drive one straight off the lot. This leads to large numbers of vehicles built for stock, which may require a lot of customising to suit the changing tastes of the car buyer, as Johnson says: "The dealers have to have a large inventory to mitigate the possible scenario of a customer who wants a vehicle in red for example, which the dealer does not have, causing the customer to go to another dealer and quite possibly another brand to get the vehicle they want.

"I cannot see this model changing a great deal in the near future so Port of Baltimore and indeed all port authorities must be as efficient and flexible as we can to help our OEM customers, processor partners and shipping lines to be as efficient as possible."  

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