The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on global shipping. One of the categories hit worst was roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro). These ships, which revolutionized the transport of automotive and military vehicles, often found themselves with nowhere to go as automakers shut down their plants in the first half of 2020 to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Figures compiled by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)—and published in its report COVID-19 and Maritime Transport: Impact and Responses—show just how bleak the Ro/Ro sector got, with the ships stopping in five percent fewer ports in the first quarter of 2020 than the same quarter a year earlier, and nearly 25 percent in the second quarter.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted on Ro/Ro services,” states the UNCTAD report. “Since March 2020, port calls by Ro/Ro ships worldwide declined by 22.8 percent compared with the same period in 2019. One in four ship calls has been suspended. Total calls by Ro/Ro ships since the beginning of 2020 declined by 13.8 percent as compared with the same period in 2019.”
While those declines were bad, it’s also true that vehicle traffic rebounded in the latter half of the year. We looked at 10 U.S. ports that have Ro/Ro capability to see how bad the situation got before they recovered—and how they did it. All of these ports instituted special COVID-19 protocols at the start of the pandemic, and all have remained operational throughout the crisis.
Port officials say that in the spring of 2020, the closure of so many automakers dramatically lowered the number of automobiles entering Colonel’s Island Terminal. May 2020 saw the worst volume decrease—down 77 percent compared to May 2019.
The rebound started in June, though port officials say Ro/Ro traffic that month was still 38 percent below June 2019. July was better, in that it was only down 11 percent. By August, Ro/Ro traffic was actually up 9 percent, though September was flat. The rest of the year saw Ro/Ro traffic up 32 percent over the previous year; November down 16 percent, and December was 27 percent ahead of the same month in 2019.
For the year, Colonel’s Island terminal served 435 vessel calls in 2020, compared to 466 in 2019. Put another way, in 2020 the Port of Brunswick handled 587,395 units of Ro/Ro cargo, a decrease of 25,506 (4 percent) compared to 2019.
The Port of Baltimore ranks “first among the nation’s ports for volume of autos and light trucks, roll on/roll off heavy farm and construction machinery, and imported gypsum,” according to the Maryland Port Administration. After sustained decreases in Ro/Ro traffic throughout the spring, December totals showed a triple-digit increase—the sixth consecutive month of increased compared to the first months of the pandemic, according to a Feb. 3, 2021, Maryland Port Administration news release. What’s more, December figures for general cargo, containers and Ro/Ro represent year-over-year monthly gains versus December of the previous year.
“Throughout the pandemic, the Port of Baltimore has been a barometer of Maryland’s economic recovery, and the latest figures give us great optimism for the new year,” Governor Larry Hogan said in the news release. “The port’s healthy rebound is an indicator of increased consumer demand, and we’ve proven we have the talented workforce and the infrastructure to answer that demand.”
By December 2020, 67,063 tons of Ro/Ro traffic moved through the Port of Baltimore—up nearly 36 percent from June. In fact, December was so good that Ro/Ro traffic was up 1 percent from the same month in 2019.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
In the spring of 2020, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo shut down auto plants in the South due to COVID-19. This cut Ro/Ro traffic into Charleston by a third, according to JOC.com.
But by August, the numbers started to recover. “Among the encouraging signs that port officials highlighted was the highest July on record for vehicle movement through the port,” according to Aug. 20, 2020, post in The Maritime Executive. “The strength in the Ro/Ro sector they believe signifies a return to normalcy at automotive plants throughout South Carolina and the Southeast.”
Port officials are so encouraged that they see a stronger rebound throughout 2021.
“We are encouraged by some signs of an initial rebound in our container and automotive volumes, as well as an increase in imports and a decline in blanked sailings,” S.C. Ports President and CEO Jim Newsome said in an Aug. 20, 2020, Maritime Executive post. “However, a more substantial recovery is dependent on the duration and intensity of the economic impacts from the pandemic, and ultimately, on a vaccine.”
Like all U.S. ports, JAXPORT saw Ro/Ro traffic hit hard by the coronavirus. But the rebound in the summer and fall was strong. In fact, the last quarter of calendar year 2020 was “the second busiest quarter for vehicles in the port’s history,” according to a Feb. 11, 2021 JAXPORT news release.
Given that it’s one of the nation’s most diversified ports, and that means it’s “well-positioned to continue to see increased volumes to satisfy growing consumer demand in nearby markets throughout the Southeast, including South Florida, Orlando and the rest of the I-4 corridor,” said Alberto Cabrera, JAXPORT’s director of Automotive Accounts.
“An increase in U.S. military vehicle movements at the port helped to offset the industry-wide decline in commercial shipments due to the temporary shutdown of auto manufacturing over the summer caused by the coronavirus,” said Cabrera.
He adds that 2021 should be a “robust year” for emerging vehicle technology. “As manufacturers continue to rebound from the pandemic shutdowns, we will see the release of many new models with the advanced technology, including autonomous driving, steering assistance, and forward collision prevention, that consumers have been demanding,” Cabrera said.
In late 2019, PhilaPort opened a giant new auto terminal and Vehicle Processing Center (VPC). “The VPC at Southport is capable of servicing 200 cars per hour and fully processing over 1,000 cars daily,” a PhilaPort news release said at the time. A few months later, the pandemic hit. After that, Ro/Ro traffic “was down, but not as much as the other Ro/Ro ports,” a PhilaPort spokesman said.
The port instituted new COVID-19 protocols, including closing the main administration offices in the early months of the pandemic. But by late September, the port reopened the offices. Today, the port is close to operating as usual—though with some adjustments.
“This port handles almost 1 million tons of forest products in a normal year,” said Penn Warehousing and Distribution’s Tom Mutz in a Feb. 5, 2021, PhilaPort news release. “But COVID and new modes of consumer behavior have resulted in even greater amounts of forest products entering our port.”
Port officials made clear that COVID-19 had very little impact on the operations at the Port of Galveston. That being said, the temporary closure of many auto plants did cause a significant slowdown in Ro/Ro traffic for much of 2020. You can see it in the numbers provided by port officials: The port moved 487,371 vehicles in 2019, but just 314,790 in 2020.
That said, port officials noted that other traffic at the port is strong. In fact, they report that the port saw 25 cargo vessels in January 2021—up considerably from the 19 that arrived in pre-pandemic January 2020.
For the Port of Hueneme, May and June of 2020 were the worst months of the pandemic for Ro/Ro traffic. During those months, Ro/Ro ship traffic dwindled almost to zero. Recovery finally came in the last quarter of 2020, which saw four to five Ro/Ro ships coming into port every week.
But the damage had been done. In 2019, Ro/Ro ships moved 346,288 autos in and out of the Port of Hueneme, but just 282,164 in 2020—an 18.5 percent drop in a year. Overall tonnage dropped at the port 1.8 percent due to the pandemic. But so far, officials say Ro/Ro volume is still showing a strong recovery and is now 1 percent higher than the same period last year.
Port officials also say their own internal operations and communications plan worked very well in dealing with COVID-19 cases. In fact, they say the port saw just 19 reported COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in March 2020. Currently, the port is working with local officials to prioritize the vaccinations cycles for their workforce.
For the first half of 2020, the Port of Virginia saw a significant drop in trade—due both to the COVID-19 pandemic and trade tariffs. But port officials are proud that throughout the crisis, the port has not lost a single-day of productivity. Despite the drop in traffic, the port instituted no layoffs or cuts in pay and benefits. Officials also noted that since the port was processing less cargo, efficiencies increased—dwell-time for rail imports, berth productivity and turn-times for motor carriers. The port also used the slow period to accelerate maintenance schedules for equipment and make operational tweaks.
By the end of the year, the Port of Virginia was actually setting records: The port processed more than 260,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in December, making it the best volume on record for that month. The port also set its all-time monthly volume record in November 2020 by handling more than 280,000 TEUs.
Today, Port of Virginia officials describe their Ro/Ro capabilities as “strong.” They expect a rebound in both automobiles and traditional Ro-Ro cargo in 2021, which they say they can accommodate at either their Newport News Marine Terminal or the Portsmouth Marine Terminal.
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Long lines of shipping traffic into the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are familiar to everyone within five miles of the Southern California coastline. Even in 2020, the traffic was considerable.
“Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on the volume of containers flowing through the port, but the latter half of the year was very active as shippers worked to satisfy pent-up demand for goods,” said Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero. “The Port of Long Beach had its best year on record in 2020, with 8,113,315 TEUs moved, up 6.3 percent from 2019. The port exceeded the previous annual record set in 2018 by 22,292 TEUs.”
But the same can’t be said for Ro/Ro ships. In fact, Ro/Ro data from the Port of Long Beach shows abysmal numbers: 302,811 vehicles in 2019, but just 239,135 in 2020.
To ensure that 2021 is good for all categories of shipping, Cordero is focusing on protecting his workforce.
“The nation’s waterfront workers have kept this country’s supply chain functioning since Day One of the pandemic, and they are at high risk,” Cordero said. “Prioritizing the waterfront workers for vaccination is of paramount importance, both for their safety, and for the sake of the economy. We are continuing to work with health officials to vaccinate essential workers, to maintain the fluidity of cargo movement.”
The Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), the operating entity behind the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, is the fourth largest container gateway in the United Sates. And the COVID-19 pandemic hit the NWSA hard across the board.
“Total container volumes in March were down approximately 21 percent as compared to March of 2019,” said John Wolfe, the NWSA CEO, according to an April 15, 2020, story in American Shipper. “That brings our year-to-date first-quarter decline to 15.4 percent.”
The situation at the ports was still bad, even into October.
“The economic fallout from COVID-19 continues to disrupt supply chains across the country and around the world,” stated an Oct 20, 2020, NWSA news release. “The NWSA gateway saw 59 blank sailings through September, surpassing the total number of canceled sailings in 2019.”
As with most ports in the U.S., by the end of the year cargo traffic had rebounded or even exceeded 2019 levels at the NWSA ports—except for auto volume. That stood at 156,205 units, down 18.6 percent from the previous year, according to a Jan. 20, 2021, NWSA news release.