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Giant container ship unloads at Port of Los Angeles

The largest container ship ever to visit US shores completed its first stop at the port of Los Angeles ahead of schedule Tuesday night. Analysts, however, say US ports aren’t prepared to regularly handle the peaks in container activity that such megaships present.

As global trade volumes swell and shippers seek to drive down costs, they are turning to larger, slower but more efficient vessels that strain the capacity of even the most efficient ports. Leading to the arrival of the 1,300-foot-long Benjamin Franklin, owned by French shipping line CMA CGM SA, officials at the port of Los Angeles undertook an unprecedented level of preparation.

hThe largest container ship to ever make port in North America unloads its cargo in the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif., on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015. After making its maiden voyage from China, where it was built, the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin arrived before dawn with its cargo. The ship can carry 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), which is about a third more than the ships that currently dock in the Port of L.A. The vessel measures 1,300 feet long, 177 feet wide and is 197 feet tall and is staffed with a crew of 26. The giant ship is scheduled to leave Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 30 en route to Oakland before returning to China. (AP)

Trucking companies were notified of the glut of arriving containers, and railcars were positioned weeks in advance to ensure a speedy turnaround, according to a CMA CGM news release. The Benjamin Franklin, the largest container vessel ever to visit a US port, carries a maximum of 18,000 20-foot equivalent units, a standard measure for container cargo.

Two weeks before the colossal 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. “Typically, we get that information 36 to 48 hours before the vessel arrives,” said Gene Seroka, executive director of the port of Los Angeles.

Knowing it all farther ahead of time “gave us a great line of sight as to how we should plan railcar assets, truck power and longshore labor,” Mr. Seroka said, adding that it is 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 Los Angeles moved 11,229 containers of various sizes on and off the ship, about 61% inbound and 39% outbound, according to the port. Approximately 1,500 longshore workers were employed on the ship and in the shipyard over 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.

Despite the sheer size of the Benjamin Franklin and the preparations made to receive it, port officials said the number of containers that were moved on and off didn’t break the port record for a single ship. Longshore workers in L.A. have moved more than 12,000 containers on and off some 13,000-TEU ships, a port spokesman said.

In a report last week, analysts with Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd. said US West Coast ports “have much work to do in terms of improving productivity if they are to see [18,000-TEU ships] call on anything other than an ad hoc basis.” The report said the arrival of one ship of that size wouldn’t “meaningfully test” the ports’ capacity, but might serve to better understand how the ports should be preparing.

Between Asia and the US West Coast the average container ship size has risen 14% in the past two years, Drewry analysts wrote. “As the average size of ships grows and more cargo is squeezed onto fewer weekly services, terminals have to prepare for much greater peaks in container activity,” the report said.

The Benjamin Franklin left Los Angeles Tuesday night, 13 hours ahead of schedule. The ship’s next and final stop in the US is the port of Oakland, where it is expected to berth Thursday morning, before returning to Asia.

“This is the first test of the West Coast ports,” said Mr. Seroka of the port of Los Angeles, adding that he will be working with CMA CGM executives in France to analyze what worked on this first trip and what still needs to be done to improve megaship handling in the months and years to come. (WSJ)