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US Gulf ports look to increase inland intermodal as Asian imports increase

US Gulf Coast ports handled 5

04 May 2021 - 19:00
US Gulf Coast ports handled 5.4 per cent of total US imports from Asia in 2020, up from 5 per cent in 2019 and they expect to build on last year's gains in containerised imports with a new all-water service coming in the second quarter, according to local port officials, reports IHS Media.

The new service will commence amid an ongoing boom in regional import distribution capacity, but Gulf Coast ports are also eyeing opportunities to capture cargo headed to inland areas by increasing their intermodal reach.



Imports of Asian-made goods through the US Gulf Coast rose 13 per cent year over year to 895,697 TEU in 2020, according to data from PIERS.



John Moseley, commercial director for the Port of Houston Authority, said the momentum in the US Gulf Coast's Asia business will continue in 2021 with the start of THE Alliance's EC6 service in May. The new weekly service, which calls at Houston, New Orleans, and Mobile, will initially be operated with vessels of 6,700 TEU capacity but vessels could be boosted to 8,500 TEU in the coming months depending on demand, THE Alliance said.



'We've been told that the service is already sold out in the first month,' Mr Moseley said.



Houston, which handles about two-thirds of the Asian imports coming into the country through the US Gulf Coast, draws in the volumes thanks to the abundance of import distribution centres that serve the state's growing population, Mr Moseley said.



In 2020, shippers including Amazon, Five Below, Dollar Tree, and Medline opened 3.5 million square feet of import distribution in the greater Houston region, according to Mr Moseley. Another 2.9 million square feet of import distribution is expected to be added in 2021 and another 2.0 million square feet in import distribution has been announced for 2022.



'There's a lot of corporations relocating to Texas,' he said. 'We're all growing very fast, and that's driving a lot of consumer demand.'



Beyond serving the local market, Mr Moseley said Houston is also trying to expand its inland intermodal reach.



The port lost intermodal rail service when Union Pacific Railroad ended its Texas Shuttle from the Barbours Cut container terminal to Dallas. Although that lane is well served by trucking, Mr Moseley said it will be important for Houston to offer shippers rail options into the Midwest to keep up the growth in Asian imports.



To that end, the Port of Houston Authority in March approved a marketing agreement with Kinne International that aims to attract shipper and railroad interest in bringing intermodal rail back to Barbours Cut.



John C Driscoll, chief executive of the Alabama State Port Authority, said the Port of Mobile has seen growth in Asian imports continue to accelerate in early 2021. After rising 5 per cent for the full year in 2020, Asian imports through Mobile jumped more than 15 per cent year over year in the first quarter. In addition to heightened demand from the nearby Walmart distribution centre, he said, Alabama-based auto and parts manufacturers are also driving up volumes.



'For us it's across the board,' Mr Driscoll said. 'Retail distribution is obviously a big part of what we do, but automotive is also coming back very strongly.'



Retail distribution is also a big part of the Port of Tampa Bay's growing role in handling Asian imports. Last year, inbound volumes from Asia through Tampa spiked 67 per cent, the highest growth rate among US Gulf Coast ports. The growth stems in large part from the 400 million square feet of warehousing and distribution space located on Florida's Interstate 4 corridor that serves the state's growing population.



In addition to expanding Canadian National Railway's service out of Mobile, Mr Driscoll said the port has been talking to other Class I railroads about additional intermodal service.



'We've seen a lot of containers move inland to Chicago, Memphis, and even into Canada,' Mr Driscoll said. 'It's not earth-shattering, but it's a good trend in the right direction, and we expect it to continue growing.'



Todd Rives, chief commercial officer for the Port of New Orleans, said ocean carriers' decision to omit New Orleans calls during the widespread voyage cancellations at the outset of Covid-19 lockdowns affected the number of Asian imports handled there.



However, Mr Rives said the new EC6 loop should boost New Orleans's share of Asian imports. The fact that New Orleans also has a strong export market for food and petrochemical products, will also help keep vessel utilisation relatively high on the backhaul to Asia.


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