- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

The reopening of West Coast ports brought little relief to the Ross Glove Co., which has 70,000 pairs of leather gloves stitched in the Philippines still stuck on a ship in the Long Beach, Calif., harbor.

Andy Ross, owner of the Sheboygan, Wis., company, doubts he can get his gloves by rail and then by truck into the hands of retailers such as L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer in time for the Christmas shopping season.

"People think it's all over, but it's not," Mr. Ross said. "It's not just about getting the containers off the boats. Now it's the infrastructure of America that's going to be congested."

Whether the nation's transportation network becomes as gummed up as Mr. Ross fears remains to be seen. But as ports from Los Angeles to Seattle crawled back to life this week after a 10-day lockout, rail and trucking officials said logistical challenges would stymie the eastward flow of goods for days to come. Experts said it would take anywhere from one to two months to empty and reload the ships.

"We'll be able to squeeze more through the system than normal, but it's still going to take us a while" to work through the backlog, said Paul Bergant, president of the intermodal division at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Intermodal transportation refers to the movement of freight by both truck and train.

Dockworkers were under scrutiny yesterday for delays in unloading ships, raising concerns that the labor unrest remained strong. As a mountain of cargo was hauled ashore, misplaced freight and equipment-related delays added to the confusion.

Dockworkers, whose contract negotiations had been stalled, were locked out Sept. 29 after the Pacific Maritime Association accused them of a deliberate work slowdown. The shutdown cost the U.S. economy more than $1 billion a day by most estimates. The ports were temporarily reopened by order of a federal judge Wednesday night.

Rail companies say the biggest hurdle will be avoiding snags when sorting containers at the ports. They are also concerned about maintaining a smooth flow of eastbound traffic so that empty trains can be brought back to the West Coast efficiently.

Trucking companies said they were largely at the mercy of dockworkers, too. Industry officials said the waterfront congestion could be alleviated more quickly if the government were willing to temporarily loosen up on regulations that restrict the number of hours drivers can work.

But the going has been slow so far.

Truckers said their job was taking twice as long as usual. And the nation's largest rail company, Union Pacific, said it was carrying 40 percent less freight than normal.

Port officials said the goal is to get containers with military equipment and perishable goods onto trains and trucks first.

But that may be easier said than done: Containers packed with material belonging to the Department of Defense are mixed in with non-military cargo on commercial liners.

"If it's down in the middle of the ship, it ain't coming out so easily," said Bill Wanamaker, director of intermodal operations at the American Trucking Associations, a Washington industry group.

Without begrudging the need to give military equipment top priority, small businesses such as Ross Gloves worried that their freight even if it arrived at the ports first could be pushed to the back of the line, behind that of large retailers and manufacturers.

"I have a feeling that the guy from Wal-Mart is probably going to have a little more clout than I do," Mr. Ross said. In the meantime, he ordered a smaller shipment of gloves by air freight. But it will cost him an extra $30,000 six times the cost of shipping by sea.

The 200 or so ships anchored off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington are carrying enough freight to fill more than 650,000 tractor-trailers. In reality, at least half of that freight will travel by rail.

"Our big concern is getting overwhelmed with a sudden rush that will overload the railroad," said John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific Corp.

Union Pacific typically runs seven or eight trains a day out of Long Beach, Calif., but is aiming to run up to 10 trains a day to clear out the excess freight. The company has set up a "war room" at its Omaha, Neb., headquarters to coordinate the flow of goods and traffic.

Because of the West Coast logjam, westbound trains have been backed up from Nevada to Nebraska. Bill Zaczek, who manages crews for Union Pacific in Cheyenne, Wyo., said he expected idled trains to begin moving again in both directions by the end of the weekend.

To help reduce rail congestion, CSX Corp. halted its westbound freight, saying the embargo would stay in place until early next week.

Yellow Corp., a large trucking company in Overland Park, Kan., dispatched 300 trucks, or 10 times more than usual, to handle the extra demand out West. In a sign of how worried retailers and manufacturers are about further delays, some customers are requesting unusual services, such as having their freight sorted at remote distribution centers, instead of at the docks, said Yellow's chief executive, Bill Zollars.

"Because there's such a glut of stuff around the port, it's going to be easier to take the containers elsewhere," he said.

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