Insider Hacks To Navigating Crowded Ports

In twelve years as a proud owner-operator, Marvin Estrada has spent more than his share of time waiting in crowded ports. On this day, Marvin arrives early and takes his place in line. Hopefully, it won’t be too long today Marvin thinks, as he tunes the radio to his favorite station.



One hour in and Marvin’s rig hardly moves. At two hours, the line begins to inch forward, but ever so slowly. With his appointment time rapidly approaching, Marvin can feel his grip on the wheel tightening and his pulse rising. Is he going to make his appointment? The odds aren’t looking good, but hopefully, the dispatcher can find him a later time slot.

After over three hours in line, Marvin finally reaches the loading dock. He watches his freight descend only to stop and suspend inches from his chassis. Tragically, the long line ran Marvin’s time into the operator’s lunch break—nothing will move for another hour and a half. After another 35 minutes at the mechanic station, and an hour and a half in the terminal exit line, Marvin is finally on his way.



Sadly, this story is all too common for today’s drayage drivers. For owner-operators like Marvin, who currently drives and recruits other drivers for NEXT Trucking, overcrowded ports and long lines are a way of life. Nearly 63% of drivers say they wait three hours or more at shipping docks. According to the April 2019 FREIGHTWAVES Port Report, wait times in Los Angeles ports run around 120 minutes, with the Elizabeth New Jersey port running about 159 minutes.




Marvin speaks to the stress drayage drivers feel. “It’s just crazy. It’s a mess. One of the ports is backed up five miles, out to the freeway, right now. Crowded ports with long lines make our jobs as owner-operators so much harder.”


But wait—all isn’t gloom and doom. Not a moment too soon, here are some insider hacks to help drayage drivers better navigate today’s crowded ports.


1. Book Earliest Appointment- Try to book one of the first appointments of the day and arrive as early as possible. If the terminal opens at 8 AM, arrive between 6 and 7 AM and make line. The earlier, the better to get the jump on the competition.




2. Avoid Break Times- As many terminals open at 8 AM, the first break is usually around 10 AM for 30 minutes. Lunch break typically starts around 11:45 AM and ends around 1:15 PM. Wise carriers avoid scheduling on either side of these time slots. The best strategy is scheduling early around 8 AM or later around 3 PM.


3. Be Prepared to Reschedule- If it becomes evident that a scheduled appointment time isn’t going to work—don’t panic. Immediately reach out to dispatch and see if a later time may be available. If this isn’t an option, remain in line and proceed to the pedestal. With a little good fortune, the crew on duty will understand the circumstances for the late arrival, and proceed to load your freight.



4. Bring Your Chassis- This will save significant time as you won’t need to make a mechanic stop. These stops can become serious bog downs if you are using a chassis that belongs to the port. Due to liability, the terminal mechanics must examine these thoroughly, which can easily add 30 minutes to an hour of wait time. Bring your chassis in good condition (correct tire pressure, working lights, no red flags), and you can avoid the mechanic stop entirely.


5. Perform Self-Checks- Before approaching the in-gate pedestal be sure all the specific appointment details are correct. Make sure you have the right time as well as booking and appointment numbers. Nothing is worse than a long wait only to be sent back for one tiny incorrect detail.

After freight is loaded, be sure to hop out and confirm the container’s identity. Verify all container numbers match and the container is sealed correctly. A minute or two spent now can save hours later by avoiding the trouble window.


Proactively use your waiting time to catch and address errors before they result in delays. When an error becomes obvious, waste no time contacting dispatch to obtain accurate information. The time you save will be your own.



6. Know Your Ports and Embrace Automation- Drayage carriers can make their lives easier by developing an intimate knowledge of the ports and terminals they work. Some terminals have better reputations, while others don’t. Knowing and selecting faster options given a choice can go a long way to lessening carrier stress and increasing income.


Automation is driving increased speed and efficiency in many industries—and drayage is no exception. Only two fully automated terminals exist in North America—Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) at Middle Harbor in Long Beach, and TraPac at the port of Los Angeles. The Global Container Terminal in New Jersey and a few locations in Virginia employ semi-automated processes at their facilities. These numbers seem sure to grow with increased knowledge of automation’s advantages.



Marvin Estrada can’t hide his enthusiasm when discussing the benefits of automated robotic cranes loading containers. “Robots don’t take lunch or get bored. With automation, drivers can be in and out of a terminal in under 30 minutes.”


For Marvin and other savvy drayage drivers, the choice is obvious—jump on the opportunity to work in ports and terminals that currently embrace automation.


7. Get Your Mind Right- We humans appear to better cope with adversity when allowed to prepare. The strategy of mentally prepping for the worst and optimistically hoping for the best seems to benefit most. In short, as a drayage driver today be ready for long lines and extended waits—all the while focusing on remaining calm.


According to Marvin, honking may feel good at the moment, but only increases tensions and further slows everyone’s roll. His best advice, after twelve years as an owner-operator, is as simple as it is wise. “Always start your workday with positive energy, stay calm in the heat of the moment, and, oh yeah, bring lunch and water.”


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