Empty Containers Offer Opportunity

Most containerized U.S. soybeans, about 47 percent, originate in Illinois. A top national container import destination, Chicago provides shippers with access to empty containers that Illinois soybean farmers can use to their advantage as a lower-cost transport option that is quite competitive with bulk system and vessel freight costs.

The Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) leadership team got a firsthand look at shipping soybeans in containers during a tour of the Port of Long Beach, along with the Transportation Network Involvement tour in northern Illinois following soybean movement through to the Port of Los Angeles. These tours showcased container shipping as an efficient, environmentally friendly and profitable option for both shippers and customers.

The following is a look, through the eyes of tour participants, at the journey a soybean in a container travels from the grain elevator to port for export. 

Step 1: Transloading

Soybeans are trucked directly from a farm or elevator to a transload facility. These photos, which were taken at Consolidated Grain and Barge in Rochelle, Illinois, illustrate how soybeans are loaded into containers.

Containers 1

When containers arrive at the grain facility, the truck driver backs up to a dock. The container is inspected by an inspection agency to make sure it is fit for holding food-quality grain. Sometimes the containers may have an odor, a hole or something that makes them unfit and they will be rejected. Once the container is determined to be fit, it is swept to brush out residual dust or foreign matter remaining from previous loads.

Next, the bulkhead is prepared by installing several 2-by-10 boards and a piece of precut cardboard that is about two-thirds the height of the container. The bulkhead keeps the soybeans from spilling out when the container doors are opened at the destination. Soybeans or grain is conveyed into the container.

Containers vary in size, with most being 20 or 40 feet in length. Each 40-foot container holds about 966 bushels of soybeans. Containers are weighed before leaving the facility and sealed for shipment. If a container is filled too full, it will be sent back to discharge or unload some of the material because the rail carriers and steamship lines will reject overweight containers. 

Step Two: Intermodal Shipping to End Users

Containers are moved from the transload facility to the intermodal facility and loaded onto unit trains headed back to coastal ports. Logistics Park Chicago (LPC) in Joliet, Illinois, is one such intermodal facility. When an inbound container comes into the facility, it is parked in a numbered stall in a lot. Once enough loads are staged for a particular destination, the containers are gathered and loaded onto a train, typically one to two days later.

Inventory management is critical, as LPC can handle more than 16,000 containers. Every container and chassis has its own number. Three yard checkers continuously drive the facility to confirm the location of every single chassis and container. Every fifth stall is marked with an exact number so LPC can keep track of the exact location of every single unit.

Containers are transferred from the truck onto trains by crane. The state-of-the-art wide-span cranes, shown here, run on electricity. Each crane has 30 cameras on it, allowing the operator, who sits approximately 65 feet off the ground, to see everything he is doing. For example, if the operator is going to grab onto a container, the camera allows him to zoom in to the exact location.

Most containers leaving LPC are going to export. It takes about 10 hours from the time a train arrives at LPC until it is unloaded. Approximately 10 hours later, the train will be reloaded for departure again, headed for the West Coast. The whole process – from inbound load, deramping, putting the containers on chassis and putting westbound freight back onto the cars – takes an average of 20 hours.

Step Three: Containers Arrive at the Coast

ocean vessel

Ocean-going vessels, like this one pictured near the Port of Long Beach, deliver the containers to international ports. A main benefit of container shipping is that once the container is loaded, the soybeans are generally not handled again until they are delivered to end user customers around the world.

San Pedro Bay Port Complex is home to the Port of Long Beach and Port of Los Angeles, operating as two separate port authorities. Part of what makes the port complex so efficient is that they have on-dock and near-dock rail. An extensive rail network connects the port to the hinterlands across the United States.

One of the biggest changes the port has seen is ship size. The Korean Hyundai vessel shown is a typical-size, at 7,000 TEUs. Soon, this will be one of the smaller ships that come into the port. They are being made bigger because of cost efficiencies. Big ships have approximately 10 percent more fuel cost, but they carry almost three times the number of containers.

Ships are brought into the port by tugboats and will stay two to four days to unload and load, depending on the size of the ship. Ship-to-shore gantry cranes, as the one shown here, off-load and load the ship. The containers visible above deck are only about half of what the ship carries. The containers above deck are unloaded first and then giant hatches are opened to unload containers down below.

One of the nation’s first automated terminals is located at the Port of Los Angeles. While not yet fully automated, the terminal has stackers and loaders that are currently computer controlled. Software keeps track of all the containers – what is going in and what is going out. However, the main advantage is that this terminal runs nonstop – there are no lunch breaks or holidays.