Mateo Carrera climbed into his white Volvo truck in Joliet, Illinois, around 3:30 a.m. on a Friday late last month and drove down dark streets outside of Chicago to pick up a load for arts and crafts chain Michaels.
The cargo was packed into a shipping container buried in a pile of crates awaiting pickup at a freight yard that opened at 7am. Before he went there, however, Mr. Carrera drove 18 miles northwest to pick up an empty container and tow that box into another 40 miles east to a rail yard, where a large forklift would lift it and release the steel trailer underneath.
The entire process, which took about two hours, was so that Mr. Carrera could get the trailer, known as a chassis, that he needed to haul the Michaels shipment. “There’s a lot more hours and a lot more waiting just because there’s no chassis.” Mr. Carrera said.
The miles on the road and the hours of waiting to switch containers between trucks and trailers are how the supply chain congestion that has rocked America’s economy looks on the ground, where tens of thousands of shipments are shipped each day in one region converge from Chicago, forming one of the country’s most important and congested freight centers.
Goods arrive in trains more than a mile long, doubly stacked with shipping containers, most of them from Asia with container ships via West Coast ports, which have been boosted by a surge in imports over the past two years.
The surge in goods was fueled by consumer spending sprees that started early in the pandemic and left retailers like Walmart inc
and goal corp
scramble to get goods across the Pacific Ocean and into the stores. That rush has dissipated as consumer shopping has shifted this year, with more spending on travel and other services and shipping volumes in seaports falling.
But the furniture, apparel, sports equipment and other consumer goods being launched are still in distribution pipelines as shortages continue to spread across the inland landscape. Congestion at warehouses and rail yards in the densely populated Chicago area has broken the delicate balance between the flow of goods and the movement of the trucks, containers and trailers that underpin the freight economy.
For truckers like Mr. Carrera, the 2 a.m. traffic jam means wake-up calls, long waits at train and container terminals, and quick glances at the clock to calculate how much time they have left on the road.
“The truckers here have a saying that there are bad days and there are worse days,” Mr. Carrera said as his truck crawled into a line of large trucks waiting to enter a rail yard.
Mr. Carrera works as an independent owner and operator for California Cartage, a subsidiary of NFI Industries, a Camden, NJ based logistics and trucking company. Many companies like NFI rely on chassis pools owned by leasing companies to move cargo. In Chicago, several chassis companies operate pools totaling tens of thousands of trailers.
Val Noel, chief operations officer at one such company, TRAC Intermodal, said chassis are spending two or three times longer than usual with containers waiting to be picked up or unloaded due to congestion at freight yards and warehouses. “The key in Chicago is trying to innovate and make better use of our gear, spinning it faster so we can handle the increase in volume,” he said.
Mr. Carrera, 35, grew up in Joliet and says years ago the fields around the town and the nearby village of Elwood were filled with farms. Today, the landscape is dotted with huge warehouses, some stretching over 1 million square feet or more, for companies like Walmart Inc., Home Depot inc
“They build new ones every day,” Mr. Carrera said as his truck rumbled past a windowless warehouse that stretched to the horizon.
Many of the warehouses are crammed with inventory after goods like patio furniture and spring clothing arrived late for the seasonal sales cycles.
Warehouses are so full that some retailers and manufacturers are using trolley-mounted containers for temporary storage outside of warehouses and in nearby yards. For truck drivers, any chassis parked in distribution center parking lots is one that cannot be used to transport goods waiting at train stations.
At BNSF Railway Co.’s main interchange station in Elwood, on a weekday late last month, most of the 4,600 slots for containers ready for transport were empty due to the lack of a chassis. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 boxes were stacked across the yard and thousands more were stored in three nearby overflow yards.
BNSF is so overcrowded that they have laid lumber across two tracks for containers to be stored and sorted there. “We’ve never covered tracks to stack boxes on them at this facility,” said Scott Hernandez, associate vice president of intermodal strategy and innovation at BNSF.
BNSF and Union Pacific Corp., which together transport cargo on the major routes connecting Chicago to the West Coast, are so busy they’ve exceeded the number of boxes they accept each week from the nation’s busiest container terminal complex in Los Angeles and Long Beach. limit Southern California.
According to the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, containers in these ports waited an average of almost 17 days to board the rails in August, a five-fold increase since January.
Mr. Carrera arrived at the container depot where Michael’s box was at around 6:45 am. He was the seventh truck in line when the camp opened. But because his crate was buried in a heap at the bottom, it was 9:30 a.m. before a forklift could reach the container and load it onto its chassis.
He spent the next few hours commuting, taking loads to a Michaels distribution center in New Lenox, Illinois, and hauling empty crates to nearby train stations. Then, around 1:45 p.m., he got into trouble.
The BNSF’s computer system would not accept an empty container, which it had to return. BNSF later said the shipping company that owned the container did not fill out the billing information for the box. After nearly two hours of driving between the main courtyard and a spill point and waiting, Mr. Carrera brought the empty box back to Joliet, where he had started his day 12 hours earlier.
“It kind of affects your morale,” he said. “I’m trying to do my job, but I can’t.”
He unhitched the trailer and climbed back into the cab of his truck. There were still two hours in which he could legally continue driving.
Another empty container was waiting nearby to be picked up. This was already sitting on a chassis.
write to Paul Berger at [email protected]
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