Once upon a container
Port of San Francisco sees a future in breakbulk, bulk cargo.
Since 2005, when the Port of San Francisco stopped handling containers, its cargo business has dropped dramatically, from 224 vessel calls and 2.4 million tons of cargo in 2004 to 39 vessel calls and 1.2 million tons in 2013.
But the port still has the ability to increase cargo services along its southern waterfront, according to a new report released in June by a San Francisco civil grand jury. (Civil grand juries are watchdog organizations in California counties that investigate and produce reports on local government issues.)
In fiscal year 2012-2013, the report said only 6 percent of the port’s revenue came from cargo services, 2 percent from other maritime activities, and the remainder from commercial and industrial activities, parking, fishing, cruises, harbor services, ship repair and other activities.
Still, an economic benefits study highlighted the value of maintaining and expanding industrial uses on port property, estimating from 2011 data that port industrial and maritime tenants generated over $785 million in annual economic activity in San Francisco, and employed roughly 2,400 workers.
The breakbulk Army Street Terminal (Pier 80) and Piers 94/96 each have three deep-water berths with cranes capable of working both breakbulk and containers for off-loading to the on-dock rail lines. They have a combined 145 acres of paved cargo staging area, with 550,000 square feet of covered storage.
The report said it would be prudent for the port to solicit more breakbulk cargo to maximize use of the facilities.
Hamburg-Süd was the last container carrier to leave San Francisco for terminals across San Francisco Bay in Oakland.
Jim Maloney, maritime marketing manager for the Port of San Francisco, said the need for deep water and space to store large numbers of containers, cranes that are taller and have more outreach, security requirements, and lack of clearance for double-stack trains make it difficult for San Francisco to compete for container business.
But the port does see opportunities for growing both its breakbulk and bulk business.
Maloney said the port had a robust breakbulk business at Pier 80 until the 2008 financial crisis when volumes dropped precipitously.
He said it’s beginning to pick up and dramatic increases are expected in the second half of the year. The pier handles steel pipe, coils, plate, and structural steel.
The product is brought in on inducement by carriers such as BBC Chartering; Clipper, which merged its project division into Thorco last year; Oldendorf; and Gearbulk.
The port used to handle steel coils for automobiles made by the General Motors-Toyota joint venture New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) in Fremont before it closed.
While the nearby Tesla plant hasn’t imported coiled aluminum for its car bodies through the port yet (much is being sourced domestically), Maloney noted the port did handle some production presses for Tesla’s new sports utility vehicle production line.
Last year two tunnel boring machines were discharged at Pier 80 that are being used by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for its central subway project.
The port also expects to handle large quantities of cable that will be run offshore between two Pacific Gas and Electric substations in the city.
There’s even the possibility that the port will handle general cargo moving in containers at Pier 80 if the year-old container-on-barge M-580 “marine highway” service between Stockton and Oakland is extended to include a San Francisco call.
“We’re looking at companies that may discharge containers in the Port of Oakland and need to bring them across the bay and also in the reverse direction,” Maloney explained.
The port is in discussions with Australian company Intermodal Solutions Group which has pioneered shipping bulk products in reinforced half-height 20-foot containers that have lids.
Containers could be moved to the port by rail, staged at the dock and then dumped into dry bulk ships with special spreader bars that remove the lid, dump the contents of the container, and replace the lid in a single action before placing the container on the dock.
Maloney said he couldn’t name the companies the port is speaking with about using the system, but said it was targeting mining companies shipping copper concentrate.
About 1,000 containers, each loaded with about 30 metric tons—about three or four trains’ worth—would probably be an optimal shipment using the system, he said.
The port is upgrading its rail infrastructure and received a $3 million grant from the Federal Railway Administration to upgrade a connector track from the port to the mainline.
“We should have the track upgraded by the middle of next year and then once we do that, that’s going to facilitate our ability to move these heavier trains with bulk product on them,” Maloney said. This could be either containerized product or even iron ore, which he said is something the port has been targeting for Pier 96. The pier has not operated as a container facility since 1998.
Maloney said the port will seek a private developer for Pier 96 and hopes to have it up and running by 2017, which he added would coincide with plans with mining companies in Nevada and Utah that are developing their sites.
The port is planning to accommodate 110-car trains and, with the new spur, six-axle locomotives would be able to move directly into the port instead of having to switch with lighter, four-axle locomotives as they do today.
The bulk products would be bottom dumped into a receiving pit and product would be moved on a covered conveyor that would keep cargo dry and prevent airborne dust.
The facility would be able to handle about one ship a week.
Maloney said the port is not entertaining the export of coal, noting this is opposed by environmentalists.
This article was published in the August 2014 issue of American Shipper.