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Houston, New Orleans ports see container volumes rise

Gulf Coast ports in Houston and New Orleans reported strong cargo volumes in February as plastics and resins helped drive exports of loaded containers.

Port Houston sees import growth slowing but exports rising

Port Houston container volume in February rose 15% compared to the same month last year to 313,452 twenty-foot equivalent units.

“Our cargo activities continue to remain solid for the first two months of the year versus 2022,” Roger Guenther, Port Houston’s executive director, said during the port’s monthly meeting Monday. “Our overall tonnage is up 7% today compared to last year; that’s collectively for all of our terminals.”

Import containers were up 20% year over year (y/y) in February to 159,787 TEUs. Imports were down 7% compared to January. 

Imports of steel, which helped carry Port Houston to some record-breaking months during 2022, were down 30% y/y in February to 327,655 tons.

Export containers were up 11% y/y to 153,665 TEUs. Total export tonnage was up 9% y/y to 2.2 million tons. 

Guenther said ports across the country are seeing “softening” import demand as retailers try to get rid of inventory sitting in their distribution centers nationwide.

Total imports, including empty import containers, were down 4% y/y in February to 2.3 million tons.

“For the U.S. overall, we are now seeing some considerable softening of demand at our container terminals as well, especially in the import of containers in Houston,” Guenther said. “Retailers in our country, and regionally and across the country, have a very high level of inventory in their distribution centers. It’s likely imports will continue to trend down during the first half of the year as retailers are selling off these goods that they have in these distribution centers. We believe the recovery of the volume will start in the second half of the year.”

Jeff Davis, Port Houston’s chief operations officer, also said imports are “dropping off” with less cargo from Asia.  

“As we look at this month, it is up, but compared to the last six months of [2022], it’s starting to drop off,” Davis said. “We’re not seeing empties go back to Asia and come back as full containers.”

Davis also said there are no container ships waiting to get into the port as the ship queue has gone to zero.

“You might recall for the past two years we’ve had a few ships waiting to get into our facility, and it peaked at about 30 ships at the container facilities about six months ago,” Davis said.

During February, ship calls were down 6% y/y to 581 vessels, while barges calling at the port fell 29% to 262.

Port of New Orleans records jump in container cargo

The Port of New Orleans reported total TEUs in February of 38,456 TEUs, a 33% increase compared to the same period last year.

Top containerized commodities that passed through the port in February were plastics, resins and chemicals.

“Overall container figures are up compared to February 2022,” Kimberly Curth, the port’s spokeswoman, told FreightWaves. “This is an encouraging sign as export demand is strengthening.”

Breakbulk cargo totaled 125,580 short tons in February, a 35% y/y decline compared to the same month in 2022.

Steel and rubber cargo were the top breakbulk commodities during the month.

The port handled 12,723 Class I rail car switches in February, a 22% y/y increase. The port handles switching operations for the six Class I railroads that operate in New Orleans: BNSF Railway, CN, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific.

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