Cranes at Seagirt get rave reviews from shipping lines

May 19, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

E. Lorenzo di Casagrande, the top official in Baltimore for Mediterranean Shipping Co., is sleeping better these days, thanks to the cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal.

On Captain di Casagrande's recommendation, Mediterranean decided last summer to become the pioneer steamship line at Seagirt, the port of Baltimore's new high-tech terminal.

The risks, he knew, were substantial. Typically, it takes many months to get a new crane operating properly. To make them as fast as possible, the Seagirt machines employ a high degree of computer technology. These cranes, billed as among the fastest in the world, were not just new, they were in a sense experimental. And it would fall to Mediterranean to conduct the experiments.

Eight and a half months and 29 ships later, the cranes have exceeded his expectations, Captain di Casagrande said.

They have been exceptionally trouble-free. "When we first started, we were skeptical about the mechanical ability of the cranes to perform steadily. It's been a nice surprise," Captain di Casagrande said during a recent interview aboard a Mediterranean containership, the Water Gina, as two of Seagirt's seven cranes steadily moved containers on and off the vessel.

The cranes are achieving production levels he did not expect to see for months. "I told my company it would take one year to get where we are now. I was expecting one year of aggravation," he said.

Captain di Casagrande is not alone in his satisfaction with Seagirt. Evergreen Marine Corp., the other line currently using Seagirt, has experienced similar success. Other lines that had been holding back, such as Puerto Rico Marine Management, also like what they have seen and have agreed to use Seagirt.

The success of Seagirt will be crucial to Baltimore's future as a major port for containerships.

Baltimore has been on the defensive in recent years. Virginia ports at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay have stolen away ships and cargo, causing a sharp decline in the port of Baltimore's market share. Seagirt is at the heart of the port's hopes for reversing that decline and restoring Baltimore's pre-eminence as the gateway to the Midwest.

Mediterranean Shipping Co.'s experience at Seagirt provides some evidence that the terminal can help lines compete more effectively for Midwest traffic. During the first quarter of this year, the line experienced a 22 percent increase in cargo at the four ports it calls along the East Coast. Two-thirds of that increase came in Baltimore, evidence that the line's strategy of cracking Midwest markets through Baltimore is succeeding.

Seagirt and its cranes are a large part of that success. At Seagirt, Mediterranean has been able to achieve a substantial decrease in its costs, while offering customers much faster service to the Midwest.

To a large degree it is the Seagirt cranes that make that success possible. Before moving to Seagirt, the line's ships were unloaded at South Locust Point Marine Terminal. The cranes there averaged about 18 containers an hour on MSC's ships. But during the Water Gina's visit to Baltimore last month, the Seagirt cranes averaged 26 containers an hour, an increase of 44 percent.

That's still far short of the theoretical capacity of 35 moves an hour for the single-hoist cranes used by Mediterranean. Reaching that capacity would require optimal conditions that rarely occur in the real world. "I am happy at 25. If we increase it to 30, I will be much happier," said Captain di Casagrande.

That rate of 25 containers an hour is the minimum the line needs to handle its increased volume of cargo in Baltimore without delaying ship departures. That's the central issue, since keeping ships on schedule is of paramount importance. A late ship means higher operating costs for the line and unsatisfactory service for the customer. And that, of course, is a formula for disaster.

"When we sell to customers, we give a transit time," Captain di Casagrande said. And from Seagirt, Mediterranean offers the fastest service in the industry between Europe and the Midwest. A container picked up by the line in Le Havre, France, can be in Chicago 16 days later. The only line that can match that delivery time, he said, is Evergreen, Seagirt's only other tenant.

The speedy delivery to the Midwest is largely a matter of proximity to the CSX rail yard, an integral part of the Seagirt complex. But the cranes are what lower the line's costs and permit the ships to stay on schedule as cargo volumes grow.

At South Locust Point, the line could move only 300 containers per ship, the amount two gangs of longshoremen could handle (( with cranes moving 17 or 18 boxes an hour. Any significant

increase in cargo would have meant substantial increases in overtime -- and, more importantly, serious delays for the ship.

At Seagirt the line has handled much higher volumes without delaying ships. The Water Gina, for example, loaded 430 boxes with two cranes and left on time.

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