LOS ANGELES — The turnaround time for container ships at the West Coast’s largest ports has returned to normal but fewer container ships are showing up, scared away by a shutdown that resulted in a month of congestion and delays.
Nearly 200 vessels were stranded outside West Coast ports during a 10-day lockout, which was ended by a federal injunction Oct. 9. At the time, industry experts estimated it would take at least six weeks to get through the backlog.
But officials in the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Puget Sound, which includes Seattle and Tacoma, said long lines have vanished.
“We’re now declaring ourselves at the high end of normal,” said Dick McKenna of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Marine Exchange, an industry cooperative that monitors ship movements.
Although the return to normal was welcomed, McKenna said it’s only because the number of ships entering the ports are down. Typically the two ports receive about eight container ships a day, but in recent weeks the average has been about 3 1/2, he said.
It’s likely the drop is temporary and traffic will return to typical levels in coming weeks as shipping lines resume normal rotations, McKenna said.
The Marine Exchange at Puget Sound, the coast’s other major commercial shipping complex, also declared this weekend that “vessel scheduling has returned to normal.”
However, some terminal yards remain jammed with containers and are short on equipment and labor, causing delays in the movement of cargo to customers, according to representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the trucking industry.
“It’s definitely improving,” union spokesman Steve Stallone said. “But it will be a couple more weeks before things are really cleared up.”
Retailers report little improvement thus far in getting goods onto store shelves, said J. Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
“I don’t know the exact technical details of what they mean when they say things are clearing up at the ports, but there’s the whole rest of the infrastructure that’s got to move that product. If we’ve moved it from the ship to the dock we’ve got to get it from the dock to the shelf,” he said.
“From what we’ve been hearing from retailers, merchandise is still trickling into the stores very slowly,” he said.
The hardest-hit products have been toys, consumer electronics, shoes, clothing and housewares, Shearman said. Ninety to 95 percent of toys and more than 50 percent of electronics sold in the United States are made in Asia, he said, while over 40 percent of shoes sold here are imported from China.
Truck traffic at the ports is still snarled, although Union Pacific reports train traffic continues to steadily improve, in large part because many shippers load train cars right from the docks.
Containers continue to be piled up on the docks while longshoremen spend more time unloading ships than organizing containers and loading them on trucks, according to the California Trucking Association.
“It’s better than it was initially, but it’s still chaos,” association vice president Stephanie Williams said. “It’s not back to normal.”
Williams said the Pacific Maritime Association profits more by serving the needs of shippers rather than those of truckers.
While longshoremen work around the clock to unload cargo vessels, they are actually working shorter days to load trucks. As a result, trucks returning empty containers are often turned away after waiting for five hours or more, she said.
The auto industry was never too hard hit by the dispute, because the Big Three auto manufacturers do not rely heavily on parts made in Asia and used air freight to get around the difficulty, said David Healy an auto industry analyst at Burnham Securities Inc.