Infrastructure: The Weakest Link
A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest links, which today are found in down-to-earth, practical transportation modes—rail, ocean, and trucks—and their support systems.
Too many infrastructure links that enable supply chains to operate in the United States are old and antiquated. They are partly clogged with overcapacity, breaking down, or simply just don't cut it from any standpoint.
Specifically, here are some major problems with U.S. infrastructure:
The incredible shrinking U.S. rail system. Our rail system shrinks in terms of track miles each year, but the country has remained the same size. Traffic needs have increased and will continue to increase, according to Department of Transportation estimates.
The number of Class A railroads has declined from more than 70 in the rails' heyday down to six. And the industry fears further shrinkage.
Major rail hubs such as Chicago and Kansas City need new technology to accommodate far more intermodal transportation and efficient services. Smaller hubs around the country need this same attention.
Rail transportation of containers, some piggybacked, can be fuel-efficient, but we need the technology and updated hubs to make it work. The best solution for long-haul transportation will clearly be found by looking in the direction of intelligent intermodal services.
Ports don't paint a pretty picture. We won't dwell on the obvious disastrous effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Instead, let's look at last year's capacity and handling crunch at West Coast ports, which was, and still is, alarming.
There is too little capacity, and not enough available real estate for all those containers. (One look at our trade imbalance shows that too many containers come into the country and too few go out.)
We also need tighter port security, which translates into scanning capability for all containers. And that translates into a series of problems.
Proper scanning takes time; new technology claims it takes 10 to 20 seconds per container, but this has not yet been accomplished at a high-volume port such as The Port of Los Angles, for example. The scanning currently in place produces too many false positives, which calls for human intervention and carries high costs per inspection.
Current scanning equipment also takes up space, which is already at a premium. And the cost of the equipment presumably will be borne by the U.S. government, but how reliable have they been recently?
The problems at West Coast ports don't fall exclusively within the ports. The rail and road infrastructure that supports the ports has been pushed to an extreme, as anyone travelling on Route 405 or Interstate 710 knows all too well.
As containerships such as the Lxel Maersk (capable of toting 110,000 tons), or the Gudrun at 367 meters in length, become the norm, our deep ports are no longer deep enough, or large enough. Far more troubling, we do not have enough deep ports, and we will, as world traffic increases, surely need them.
The MCS Pamela can carry 9,200 TEUs. That amount of freight, if loaded onto a single railroad, would stretch at least 40 miles; if loaded on trucks, it would shut down Los Angeles.
Trucking is in a dreadful situation. DOT's figures show little change in fuel efficiency since 1965. There are many extenuating circumstances: too many hours idling, too few miles per gallon at speeds of 65 miles per hour or more, too many roads to manage in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Now add compliance requirements, new and growing security measures, and the grossly undernourished road system. Truckers deserve better.
Truckers need road conditions that are not dependent upon Eisenhower's highway system, which was fine for the 1960s but doesn't cut it today. Truckers need engine designs that improve fuel use and efficiency. They need real-time route monitoring. They need automatic tire air pressure adjustment, better streamlining for better aerodynamic effects, and telematics in all trucks.
Transportation has not always been designed for economy, but rather for the convenience of the moment. Now it has to be redesigned economically and functionally.
No matter how good the supply chain management system, the warehouse management system, or the logistics management system, products will not move just in time if the infrastructure does not support them properly. Great software does not mitigate a lack of up-to-date rail hubs, deep port capability, or good roads.
Civic engineers have stated that we need to spend $1.7 trillion to bring the U.S. infrastructure up to grade. Only our government can handle such a sum over a period of years, and it will be an enormous commitment. Our focus will have to be internal to the nation, not overseas. Our economic survival is at stake.