By Todd Karpovich
Photography by Donovan Eaton Photography
The Port of Baltimore is back to its record-setting ways with roll-on/roll-off (ro/ro) cargo after weathering a storm of tough market conditions during the past several years.
Baltimore handles the majority of the U.S. East Coast’s market share of ro/ro cargo, more than any other U.S. port annually. The Port has maintained its status as one of the world’s top destinations for ro/ro because of its prowess and careful handling of this type of machinery, resulting in the lowest damage possible.
In addition, the Port has the closest proximity to Midwest manufacturers among all U.S. ports and has skilled longshoremen, some of whom participate in the annual “Ro/Ro Rodeo” to learn how to navigate the latest machinery.
The Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration (MDOT MPA) also developed the QCHAT (Quality Cargo Handling Action Team) initiative to assess performance areas, identify problems, and take corrective action steps to improve the quality handling of the cargo at the Port.
The first quarter of this year for ro/ro has already been strong, with 335,638 tons of cargo pass-ing through the Port, an increase of 32.5 percent from last year.
The ro/ro cargo is costly to move and accommodate and requires special care from the Port’s talented workforce, who help to ensure that the freight is handled more carefully here than at any other port.
Baltimore also has good access to the Midwest’s major farm and construction equipment manufacturers. This proximity has helped the Port become the leading U.S. port for combines, tractors, hay balers and in the import of excavators and backhoes.
“We have every major ro/ro service calling at the Port, covering every major trade lane,” said Joe Marecki, Administrator, Sales & Marketing – Business Development for Ro/Ro at the MDOT MPA. “With so many services calling at the Port, we have a critical mass of service providers — rail lines, truckers, stevedores, processors, etc. — that gives the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) options, making for an overall more competitive environment. Strategic location and being located 150 miles closer to the Midwest gives OEM’s a tremendous advantage with regards to inland transportation.”
The Port of Baltimore’s quality initiatives like QCHAT (Quality Cargo Handling Action Team), a service provided by the MDOT MPA to protect the quality of maritime-related cargo, have also set the standard for global quality and excellence in ro/ro handling.
QCHAT and the Port collaborate with all elements of the Port’s industry and labor to identify and implement quality-focused handling practices and procedures to prevent damage to any cargo and maintain the highest level of cargo quality and procures best practices.
QCHAT meetings include representatives from steamship lines, railroads, manufacturers, stevedores, processors, longshoremen and terminal operators to identify, analyze and coordinate cargo-handling practices for ro/ro cargo.
The strides with ro/ro are part of the momentum that began building last year. The Port handled a record 43 million tons of international cargo, including ro/ro, in 2018, breaking the previous high mark of 40.9 million tons that stood for 44 years. The value of the cargo passing through the Port in 2018 was also a new benchmark: $59.7 billion, surpassing the previous $53.9 billion set in 2017.
“For the most part, the major world economies, including the U.S., are still doing well,” Marecki said. “Construction and agricultural equipment have started a new cycle of replenishing inventories.”
Despite some ups and downs in this commodity due to international market conditions, the Port maintained its status as the top U.S. port for high and heavy farm and construction equipment. Several leading manufacturers that play a key part in the Port’s success, including John Deere, Caterpillar and CNH Industrial, had solid 2018 campaigns. The Port was able to gain some new business with Oxbo, Rapid and Morooka.
CNH Industrial has enjoyed a profitable and deepening relationship with the Port and its partners and shipping lines.
“The Port of Baltimore is nearly a perfect port location for our whole goods distribution, which is why a high percentage of all North American import and export cargo arrives or departs from Baltimore,” said Mike Malkinski, CNH Industrial’s Supervisor in Baltimore for Port Operations NAFTA Region. “The Port’s investment in infrastructure . . . allows CNH Industrial to be in one location and still import cargo using multiple vessel lines.”
Moreover, Baltimore is in a great position for trucked cargo, considering that a truck can be on any number of north-south or east-west highways in a matter of minutes. This has allowed CNH Industrial to maximize its capacity for shipping by truck.
Last year, the MDOT MPA, Wallenius Wilhelmsen and Mid-Atlantic Terminal LLC helped John Deere move 45 cotton pickers from Baltimore to Australia. The firms teamed up for two sailings with 20 units on the first shipment and 25 on the latter, a project that underscores the unique partnerships at the Port.
“The Port of Baltimore continues to serve as a strategic hub for Deere import and export ro/ro cargo,” said Tim Bainter, International Ocean RoRo Operations Manager, Worldwide Logistics & Supply Management, Deere & Company. “The Port’s proximity to our Midwest factories producing large agriculture, construction, and forestry equipment is advantageous for export deliveries, and likewise for imports servicing our Midwest and East Coast customers from various regions of the world.
“Shipping through Baltimore provides Deere with access to all major markets due to the carrier network calling on the port, and the secure facilities on Dundalk Marine Terminal are top-notch.”
The MDOT MPA works hard to remain the top U.S. port for ro/ro by supplying the workforce with the tools to efficiently move cargo in and out of the Port.
For example, each year the MDOT MPA hosts the “Ro/Ro Rodeo,” which rounds up manufacturers to provide interactive instruction on the handling and operational requirements for each type of vehicle (see page 8).
A training program for specific farm and construction equipment is also available.This type of commitment helps the Port maintain the lowest damage rate on ro/ro cargo in the nation.
The future for ro/ro remains bright at the Port.
The MDOT MPA is in the process of strengthening all berths at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, including a current process and design for berths 3, 2 and 1 — the largest ro/ro berths.
“We are also in the process and design of extending the rail currently at berths 4 and 5 down to berths 3, 2 and 1 to improve our direct [access] to/from rail,” Marecki said.