The truck pulling a dark green steamship line container came to a halt yesterday morning just inside the chain-link fence at the back of the CSX rail yard. Dockworker Robert Cook quickly checked the identification number of the container and sent the driver on his way.
A few minutes later, the driver had delivered his container to the train and was headed back to the adjoining Seagirt Marine Terminal to pick up another box.
The speed and efficiency of this operation is helping steamship lines provide better service to their customers in distant markets via the CSX rail system. It also is helping to lower the real cost of a very basic part of doing business in the port: moving cargo between a ship and a train.
The combination of faster and more efficient service should help the port of Baltimore be come more competitive in the Midwest, a crucial market in the competition among mid-Atlantic ports. After almost a year of operation, Seagirt and the rail yard are functioning more like the closely integrated complex they were designed to be.
Capt. Lorenzo di Casagrande, the top official for Mediterranean Shipping Co. in Baltimore, called the faster movement of containers "a big achievement."
He said that an arrangement worked out this summer to speed the transfer of cargo between ship and train, along with improved communications, makes it possible to get a container out of the rail yard in as little as two hours. A few months ago, it sometimes took a day.
That can represent a crucial savings in time for rush shipments coming from the Midwest. Because a steamship line like MSC has one ship a week in Baltimore, a box that's late may wait a week for the next vessel.
"Losing a week can jeopardize a contract with our customer," Captain di Casagrande said.
He called the faster service "a gain in reputation and efficiency for the port of Baltimore."
Capt. William Chan, the top official of Evergreen Marine Corp., said that the faster transfer reduces the real cost of moving containers between the ship and rail terminals. It's simply a matter or time and money.
He estimated that under the old arrangements, an International Longshoremen's Association dockworker could move three to four containers an hour from Seagirt to the rail yard. Now, he believes, the same ILA driver can move seven or eight containers.
Evergreen pays its stevedoring company a set rate to move boxes from Seagirt to the rail yard. Before the changes, the stevedore claimed to be "losing his shirt" on the operation, Captain Chan said. That complaint has stopped.
The state-owned rail yard operated by CSX Intermodal next to the Seagirt Marine Terminal was conceived to help the port compete more effectively for traffic moving to and from the Midwest by rail.
But until this summer, the rail-ship connection was hampered by a sticky liability issue that required containers moving between the ship and the train to undergo two time-consuming inspections, one at the marine terminal and one at the rail yard.
Usually an inspection is required every time a container leaves or enters a terminal to identify the cargo container and its condition. The inspections help establish when damage occurs and who is responsible.
To expedite the movement of the containers, the railroad had to resolve the liability issue with the stevedoring companies that shuttle containers between Seagirt and the rail yard. The breakthrough came when ITO Corporation of Baltimore Inc., the stevedore serving the steamship lines that use Seagirt, signed a "hold harmless" agreement with CSX. In effect, ITO agreed not to hold CSX responsible for damage discovered in the CSX yard. Once the liability issue was resolved, the need for the additional inspection at the CSX yard was eliminated.
"The driver doesn't have to go through the gate," said Morris W. Jones, CSX's terminal manager, who estimated the saving at about 20 minutes a trip.