Anybody working in the supply chain will tell you that moving freight across the ocean is complex and often full of unpleasant surprises.
Transportation from a manufacturer in Asia across the Pacific Ocean to arrive ultimately in a rural community in the Midwest, for example, requires multiple players and modes of transportation, which inevitably introduces more variables and chances for delays.
When it comes to inland point intermodal (IPI) shipping, or reverse IPI for exports, most shippers don’t have the infrastructure to move containers to or from ports to their consignees on their own or they don’t have direct contracts with railroads. This is why shippers choose to utilize a steamship line’s rail contracts or go through another party — such as a 3PL — for their intermodal transportation needs.
Ocean carrier or non-vessel-operating common carriers’ (NVOCC) contracts can provide shippers with a simple rate and end-to-end operational solution for their intermodal service requirements. This makes their lives a little easier as their ocean carrier or NVOCC coordinates transportation from the origin through ocean voyage, inland, final delivery and empty termination.
However, with ever-present and evolving supply chain disruptions, intermodal transport under a steamship’s contracts doesn’t always prove to be a shipper’s optimal choice.
“Even with lower-than-normal volumes, there remains chassis shortages at specific rail ramps and lack of empty containers to fulfill bookings with specific ocean carriers,” said Pat Allred, director of transportation at Cornerstone Systems, a U.S.-based 3PL. “This has impacted U.S. exporters and their speed to market.”
Holdups at rail terminals can last for days, resulting in a shipper having to pay terminal storage charges and container line demurrage fees.
“Those charges need to be paid upfront prior to container movement, which generally leads to additional lost time and additional cost,” said Guy Wallace, senior VP of sales at Cornerstone. “Not to mention added headaches for those responsible for addressing the problem.”
Final-mile delivery from inland rail terminals to consignees can also be affected, becoming delayed or even canceled by the steamship line, Wallace added.
“Another common challenge can include lack of flexibility for the shippers’ supply chain where they cannot divert or change the mode of transport,” Allred said.
While avoiding all disruptions is impossible, lack of communication about delays or cancellations can create even more issues for shippers. Nobody wants to be put on hold for extended periods just to get an update about the status of a shipment. Being left in the dark about delays until after the shipment reaches its destination, when it’s too late to do anything about it, is an even worse scenario — but an unfortunate reality.
At the end of the day, shippers want real-time information and the ability to easily speak to a real person who can help them navigate disruptions.
“Although the U.S. supply chain is not having the issues that occurred over the last two years, many of the underlying problems remain,” Wallace said. “Today’s supply chain requires a more hands-on approach that doesn’t just rely on technology to get freight moving but also has the experienced people to manage the multiple processes required to bring reliability and consistency to every transaction.”
Booking intermodal transport with a 3PL can provide shippers with just that — a partner that allows them to manage and keep tabs on all freight and prioritizes transparent communication and flexibility to respond to their changing needs.
“A good 3PL should provide the necessary information even before the customer requests it,” Wallace said. “And customer access to either sales or ops personnel should be painless. Making it easy to do business is a core competency of a good 3PL.”
3PLs like Cornerstone Systems have the network capacity to offer multiple transportation options and the ability to easily change inland destinations and modes of transport at no additional cost.
“A single source multimodal provider that can furnish multiple solutions to a customer’s supply chain challenges is a critical advantage … . Some of the steamship lines may offer limited options on drayage, transload, over-the-road or intact drayage scenarios. However, some 3PLs, such as Cornerstone, can provide those multiple options at all the U.S. ports,” Wallace said.
Cornerstone keeps in constant communication with shippers throughout the transportation process. Its track-and-trace process for import containers includes checking on port statuses, such as line releases and port access to grounded containers versus steamship line availability status.
“Most importantly, we relay any problems shown at the ports to the customer so that those issues, such as line release, can be resolved in a timely manner to ensure a seamless move of the cargo,” Wallace said.
Companies struggling with head count or recent loss of experienced logistics personnel can find the necessary support for their logistics needs with Cornerstone Systems. Its experts are knowledgeable in current supply chain disruptions as well as the diverse array of industries they serve, including food and beverage, appliances and electronics, agriculture, retail, automotive, government services, and solar projects.
To learn more about Cornerstone Systems, click here.