Oct 30

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Life of a Drayage Driver

6 minute read
Brian Kempisty

I have been given guided tours by port officials at nearly every major seaport in the United States. During the planning stages, prior to one of these trips, a colleague of mine mentioned in passing he applied for a TWIC card. Seemed rather unnecessary given the port officials and business development agents were more than happy to ferry me around and boast the number of transactions per day, the new Post-Panamax crane order that was just placed, or talk of future expansion and implementation of state of the art technology that will expedite driver turn times and mitigate the self-evident congestion. With a TWIC card I could get a different perspective, so I acquired my TWIC card to put myself in a driver’s shoes. My first shared experience was working a day with a driver that drays containers to and from every seaport, CY, rail in the Seattle-Tacoma area. What I have written is not a judgement, it’s merely my experience of one day listening to the concerns of a driver that just wants to pick up and drop off containers, his job.

It’s a day in the life of a drayage provider. Their friends, bests friends, guardians, are their dispatchers. They rely on them for everything. The best drivers will stick with meticulous dispatchers because it will make their lives easier. Each time a dispatcher mistakenly conveys an incorrect container number, creates pain and suffering for the driver. The driver will only be as good as the dispatcher who is guiding him. This is probably the single most important piece of knowledge I gained from the day riding with my driver. The driver relies on the dispatcher with a blind faith that the day is going to be maximized and as trouble free as possible. I learned of the drivers’ arch enemies, traffic, hurried drivers and last but most importantly, longshoreman. Seventy five percent of the conversation I had with my driver revolved around the inefficiency of longshoremen and their seeming unwillingness to do their jobs with any sense of urgency. To some driver’s, longshoremen are necessary evils and a perennial struggle exists between the two. If I had spent a day with a longshoreman quite possibly the aforementioned sentence could have been reversed. But I didn’t, and I was told the origin of Husky Terminal’s delay was the inefficiency of longshoreman. I cannot say whether that is true or false, it’s just my report.

I met my driver at central dispatch who seemed very courteous and genuine. We settled on a simple ride along. Pick up a container from a port, any port, it was of no consequence to me, and deliver it to the consignee, to the drop yard, wherever. More importantly I wanted to understand and be a part of the process.

With that said our objective was to pick up an import container from Olympic Container Terminal in Tacoma.

On our way to OCT we get a call from dispatch alerting us OCT has become a parking lot. For reasons unknown there’s a rush on that terminal and getting a container out of that terminal would waste the driver’s day. The container in question that we were assigned to get did not have a LFD of that day, nor was it considered or marked as urgent so we were diverted to fulfill some other duties. We were instructed to pull an empty reefer container from the rail and in-gate it to Husky Terminal. Equipment management, or re-arrangement is commonplace for all SS Lines and the Sea-Tac area is no exception. This SS Line had a booking that called for one of their refrigerated containers to be pulled from Husky Terminal for export usage. The reefer was wheeled and mounted at the BNSF rail. The dispatcher conveyed the correct container number to the driver who had to drive into and then around the BNSF’s yard to find the container then hook up to it. No technology here telling us what space the container was in, nothing, we had to drive around and eye the containers up and down until we found the lucky one. Fortunately, it did not take us too long to find it. After the driver backed up and performed all the necessary checks on the chassis and container, we were off.

At this point the day seemed rather uneventful. Entering Husky Terminal is when things got interesting, not to mention long, very long.

Our task is to dray this empty refrigerated container into port and exit with the chassis. So, we are doing what is considered a double move. We are giving a container along with the chassis to the port, however, we are taking the chassis that we are bringing in, and in doing so it constitutes two separate transactions. This is very important as we had to get permission from the port to perform this.

Husky Terminal you don’t just enter. It is very different from Savannah, or Mobile, or many of the other ports I have visited. You are staged, then you enter. Not only is there one staging area, there are two staging areas before you even reach the gate at Husky. All told, on this day, we arrived at 1100 and departed the port at 1445. I cannot adjudicate and confirm that every day is this bad or it takes this long to get in and out, but on this day, it did.

A contributing factor to the delay is the longshoremen’s mandatory lunch, which everyone is entitled to of course. My intention here is to not berate the terminal or the workers, just convey my experience. Upon entering the first staging point, which is around the block from the actual gate of Husky drivers are arranged in lines, I believe there were four or five lines of trucks already waiting. My driver told me that this is the first of the two staging points and there’s no telling how long we could be waiting.

At 1145the longshoremen all go to lunch. Terminal operations cease. No drivers in, no drivers out. The terminal does not operate. At approximately 1300 operations commence. We did not enter the second staging area until 1315 or so. It was at this point I realized that essential characteristics of driving truck were patience and tolerance. It was evident to the driver I lack both of those qualities as he kept reassuring me that once we were done in-gating this container that he would deliver me back to central dispatch and send me on my merry way. He was correct. Waiting to get into the port was like waiting for paint to dry. The ports do not operate with a sense of urgency, based on my one day of port experience. Every process seemed to take a long time. Once we finally arrived at the gate being released from both staging areas one and two, we were funneled into lines delineated by purpose. If you were in-gating a loaded export you were to go in line “x”, if you were pulling an import, line “y”. A phone booth, yes that’s correct, a phone booth was positioned at the front of these lines. To complete the transaction, the driver had to pick up the telephone, wait for a port operator, and describe the agenda, thankfully all our tasks were approved ad corresponding paperwork matched up. This is where it is essential to have correct paperwork, correct booking numbers, correct container numbers, bill of lading numbers, etc. Going to the dreaded trouble window and getting a trouble ticket is to be doomed to a difficult day in the port. At all points you’re at the mercy of port laborer’s. I think port drayage, after my experience, can be summed up by a matchup between driver vs. longshoreman. The driver wants to be in and out as soon as possible, and the longshoreman decides whether that will come to fruition. So, it is very evident that you have this push and pull and an unspoken admission from the drivers that they are just pawns in this drayage operation.

Nevertheless, after we waited for the port operator to approve our tasks we then proceeded to enter the terminal, finally, free at last, or so I thought. Thankfully my driver had over 12 years’ experience with Seattle-Tacoma ports so navigating, knowing where to go, when to go, was not an issue. However, if I were a rookie driver, or just an outsider looking in, as I was, the terminal operations have a chaotic look and feel. With the top pickers moving from one side to another, drivers with containers, without containers, coming at you from every direction, very easy to get confused and although I was not witness to an accident on that day my driver assured me that with everyone attempting to impose their will on each other and make it out of the terminal as fast as possible, accidents happen, and the port can be a very belligerent place.

The driver rightly guided us to the area where we were to sit and wait for a top picker to extricate the container from the chassis and put it in the stacks. The driver did his due diligence and unpinned the container from the chassis thus insuring the container comes off easily. The driver told me of an experience when he was at a port and neglected to unpin the fours pins of the container, so the container and chassis were still together and the top picker had the back half of his truck off the ground. Funny story in hindsight he said, lesson learned. After waiting, and waiting for a top picker to see us, he signaled us to drive towards him. He communicated to the driver to stop by his horn, honking it once apparently meant stop so he could remove the container from the chassis. Once that was done we faced another momentous task. Leaving the port. I can only equate it to merging during rush hour traffic. It was disorderly, chaotic, and dreadful. The procedure of removing the container from the chassis took approximately five minutes, it took us another forty five minutes to an hour to move less than a quarter of a mile to exit the gates of the port.

In closing I wanted to get some perspective on what it was like to be a driver. To have to deal with the lack of chassis, the congestion, the abrasive relations with longshoremen. All of that exists and it is a job I could not do. Having a sense of urgency is all but squashed when you are sitting in that driver’s cab. It’s impossible to move as fast as your mind wants to.

I would much rather dispatch than drive.

Brian Kempisty