The largest container ship ever to visit U.S. shores completed its first stop at the Port of Los Angeles Tuesday night, and has now arrived at the Port of Oakland. The megaship Benjamin Franklin, owned by French shipping line CMA-CGM, is 1,300 feet long, 177 feet wide and has the capacity of nearly 18,000 containers. Most ships coming into U.S. ports carry 14,000 containers.

 

The ship surely won’t be the last of such size to visit U.S. ports either. Indeed, as global trade volumes rise and shippers strive to reduce costs, they are turning to larger, more fuel-efficient ships that bring economies of scale and burn less fuel and have lower exhaust emissions than older vessels.

 

The problem is not all U.S. ports can accommodate such megaships. The Port of Oakland has already dredged berths and channels to 50 feet deep and raised the height of its cranes that load and unload vessels to handle the megaships. It also has a modernization project underway to move cargo more quickly from ships to warehouses, trucks and rail cars.

 

“Nothing this big has ever been seen in our country,” Port of Oakland Executive Director Chris Lytle says in a San Jose Mercury News article today. “There’s no doubt others will follow suit, and we’re gratified that Oakland is one of the only ports in the U.S. ready to receive them.”

 

Docking a ship of this size is one challenge, but unloading the sheer volume of cargo is even more challenging. However, officials at the Port of Los Angeles took early—and unusual—steps. For example, trucking companies were notified of the arriving containers, and railcars were positioned weeks in advance to ensure a quick turnaround, according to a CMA-CGM statement.

 

Two weeks before the ship arrived, the port received detailed information on container count and placement on the ship, as well as a breakdown of their destinations—to the Midwest via rail, for example, or to local retailers or inland warehouses to be unloaded. Ports typically receive that information 36 to 48 hours before the vessel arrives, Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, says in a Wall Street Journal article.

 

Knowing all that information earlier “gave us a great line of sight as to how we should plan railcar assets, truck power and longshore labor,” Seroka says, adding that it’s a system the port wants to replicate as more large ships come to call.

 

From Saturday morning, Dec. 26, to Tuesday evening, Dec. 29, APM Terminals Pier 400 in the Port of Los Angeles moved 11,229 containers of various sizes on and off the ship, about 61 percent inbound and 39 percent outbound, according to the port. Approximately 1,500 longshore workers were employed on the ship and in the shipyard more than 56 hours to unload imports and reload exports using a record nine cranes at once. According to APM Terminals, 12 double-stack trains carried 2,845 of the inbound containers off the dock.

 

The flip side of the coin, however, is that many analysts say U.S. ports aren’t prepared to regularly handle the traffic peaks in container activity that such megaships present. To be sure, it will be interesting to see how U.S. ports continue to prepare for megaships, as well as how supply chains will need to adapt to the greater cargo volume being unloaded.