Boston’s glory days as a major shipping port are long in its past. And it’s now about to pay a price for being lower down the food chain, as the shipping industry seeks to untangle the massive traffic jam of container ships waiting to get into the nation’s largest cargo ports.
Disruptions to the global supply chain have led to huge queues of container ships waiting outside bigger ports to unload, adding to the delays of goods shipped from overseas factories. Though Boston’s recently remodeled port doesn’t have nearly the traffic — or traffic jams — of bigger ports, some shipments from China have been arriving up to a month late, a big headache for New England retailers and others looking to stock up on imported goods for the holiday shopping season.
And now, a major shipper that sends one of just two container ships that regularly call on Boston each week revealed it is planning to skip its rounds here for two months this winter. The move will allow the shipper to concentrate on speeding up deliveries at larger ports, such as New York.
“As part of the supply chain crisis, the carriers are looking to save time wherever they can,” said Jennifer Mehigan, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the Conley Container Terminal in South Boston. “To do that, a temporary measure is to bypass ports like Boston.”
In other words, in the global shipping crisis, Boston will be taking one for the team.
The timing for Boston is unfortunate. As part of an ongoing $850 million upgrade to the port, Massport has just purchased and installed three new giant cranes at the Conley terminal. Once they pass tests, the cranes will allow the port to accommodate significantly larger cargo ships, ones capable of carrying up to 14,500 standard shipping containers.
A multitude of factors has combined to cause the global shipping bottleneck. In August, the Chinese port of Ningbo, one of the world’s largest, was shut down for two weeks to stamp out a COVID-19 outbreak among dock workers. Ports around the globe are still feeling the effects of this delay.
Once the port resumed operation, “there was a huge wave of ships that came rushing to the East Coast,” said Port of Boston director Michael Meyran.
This is one reason for the vast backups outside the ports of Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and New York. But these traffic jams cause extra delays for the Boston-bound ships from Asia, which are scheduled to stop at Savannah and Charleston before heading north. As a result, the trip, which used to take 30 days, has recently taken as long as 60 days.
And on Friday, Mehigan disclosed that Ocean Alliance, the shipping consortium that normally sends one container ship per week from Asia to Boston, will pause its visits to the port from late November to the end of January, in a bid to speed up deliveries elsewhere in its network.
Normally, the weekly Ocean Alliance vessel heads north from Charleston to Boston, then goes south to the Port of New York. Instead, it will skip the Boston leg and go straight to New York. This will cut hundreds of miles from its usual route, saving several days of travel and port time, though it will also mean waiting for an open berth at New York’s already crowded port.
The Ocean Alliance ships carry large quantities of Asian-made furniture and clothing, among other products. Those goods will be unloaded at other ports and then forwarded on to New England by land, not sea. It’s unclear how much of an additional delay this will cause locally.
“The cargo will still be imported into the US at a different port and will have to be trucked into New England,” Mehigan said.
Ocean Alliance did not respond to requests for comment.
While other major ports remain backed up, Boston currently has capacity to unload many more containers. Mehigan said that Boston port officials had suggested Ocean Alliance offload more cargo here and bypass the larger, more crowded East Coast ports.
“We’re ready. We’ve made this investment. We’re congestion-free,” she said.
But Ocean Alliance wasn’t persuaded, she said.
Hauke Kite-Powell, senior analyst at Marsoft, a Boston-based maritime research firm, said the COVID pandemic spawned a huge surge in demand for imported goods that caught shippers and seaports unprepared.
“What we’re trying to do is to jam 20 percent or 30 percent more cargo through a transportation system that was already stretched fairly thin,” Kite-Powell said.
Meyran, the Boston port director, said Conley has sufficient capacity to handle twice as much shipping traffic as it did prior to the pandemic. Massport hopes to use this additional capacity to persuade a shipping company to begin weekly service between Boston and markets in southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and Thailand.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.