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Choked-Up Yards and Trailer Shortages Box In America’s Truckers

Mateo Carrera climbed into his white Volvo truck in Joliet, Ill., around 3:30 a.m. one Friday late last month, and drove on dark roads outside Chicago to collect a load for the Michaels arts-and-crafts chain.

The cargo was packed into a shipping container buried in a stack of boxes waiting for pickup in a freight yard that opened at 7 a.m. Before heading there, however, Mr. Carrera drove 18 miles northwest to pick up an empty container and haul that box another 40 miles east to a rail yard where a large forklift truck would lift it and release the steel trailer underneath.

The entire process, which took about two hours, was so that Mr. Carrera could get the trailer, known as a chassis, that he needed to haul the Michaels delivery. “There’s a lot more hours and a lot more waiting, just because there’s no chassis.” Mr. Carrera said.

The miles on the road and hours spent waiting to switch containers between trucks and trailers are how the supply-chain congestion that has rattled the American economy looks on the ground, where tens of thousands of shipments converge each day in a Chicago region that forms one of the country’s most vital, and most crowded, freight hubs.

The goods arrive on trains more than a mile long stacked two-high with shipping containers, most of them brought in from Asia by container ships through West Coast ports that have been backed up by a flood of imports over the past two years.

The surge in goods has been driven by the consumer buying binge that started early in the pandemic and left retailers such as Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. scrambling to get goods across the Pacific Ocean and into stores. That rush has dissipated as consumer shopping has shifted this year, with more spending going to travel and other services, and the shipping volumes have started receding at seaports.

But the furniture, apparel, athletic equipment and other consumer goods rushed into the market are still in distribution pipelines as bottlenecks continue to ripple across the inland landscape. The backups at warehouses and freight yards in the densely packed Chicago region have broken the fragile balance between the flow of goods and the movement of the trucks, containers and trailers that undergird the freight economy.

For truckers like Mr. Carrera, the congestion means 2 a.m. wakeup calls, long waits at rail and container yards and quick glances at the clock to calculate how much more time they are allowed to be on the road.

“The truckers have a saying here that there’s bad days and there’s worse days,” Mr. Carrera said as his truck crawled in a line of big rigs waiting to get into a rail yard.

Mr. Carrera works as an independent owner-operator for California Cartage, a subsidiary of NFI Industries, a Camden, N.J.-based logistics and trucking operator. Many companies like NFI rely on pools of chassis owned by leasing companies to move freight. In Chicago, several chassis companies operate pools totaling tens of thousands of the trailers.

Val Noel, chief operations officer at one such company, TRAC Intermodal, said congestion at freight yards and warehouses leaves chassis spending two or three times longer than usual sitting with containers waiting to be picked up or unloaded. “The key in Chicago is trying to re-up our equipment and utilize it better, turn it faster so that we can handle the surge in volume,” he said.

Mr. Carrera, who is 35, grew up in Joliet and says the fields around the city and the nearby village of Elwood were filled with farms years ago. Today, the landscape is studded with hulking warehouses, some stretching across 1 million square feet or more, for companies such as Walmart, Home Depot Inc. and IKEA.

“They’re constructing new ones every day,” Mr. Carrera said as his truck rumbled past a windowless warehouse that stretched toward the horizon.

Many of the warehouses are stuffed with inventories after goods like patio furniture and spring apparel arrived too late for the seasonal sales cycles.

The warehouses are so full that some retailers and manufacturers are using containers mounted on chassis as temporary storage outside warehouses and in nearby yards. For truck drivers, each chassis sitting in distribution center lots is one that can’t be used to move goods waiting at rail yards.

At BNSF Railway Co.’s main freight-switching yard at Elwood one weekday late last month, most of the 4,600 parking spaces for containers ready for hauling were empty because there were no chassis on hand. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 boxes were stacked in piles scattered throughout the yard and thousands more were stored in three spillover yards nearby.

BNSF is so overrun it has placed timber across two tracks so containers can be stored and sorted there. “We have never at this facility ever covered up tracks to put boxes stacked upon,” said Scott Hernandez, assistant vice president for intermodal strategy and innovation at BNSF.

BNSF and Union Pacific Corp., which together haul freight along the main routes linking Chicago to the West Coast, are so full they are limiting the number of boxes they accept each week from the nation’s busiest container port complex at Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California.

Containers waited at those ports almost 17 days on average in August to move by rail, according to the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a fivefold increase since January.

Mr. Carrera arrived at the container yard that held the Michaels box at about 6:45 a.m. His was the seventh truck in line when the yard opened. But because his box was buried at the bottom of a pile, it was 9:30 a.m. before a forklift could reach the container and load it onto his chassis.

He spent the next few hours shuttling back and forth, bringing loads to a Michaels distribution center in New Lenox, Ill., and hauling empty boxes to nearby rail yards. Then, at about 1:45 p.m. he hit trouble.

BNSF’s computer system wouldn’t accept an empty container he needed to return. BNSF later said the ocean shipping company that owned the container hadn’t completed billing information for the box. After almost two hours of driving between the main yard and an overflow site and waiting, Mr. Carrera took the empty box back to Joliet where he had started his day 12 hours earlier.

“It kind of affects your morale,” he said. “I’m trying to get work done, but I can’t get it done.”

He uncoupled the trailer and climbed back into the cab of his truck. There were still two more hours in which he could legally continue to drive.

There was another empty container waiting nearby that needed to be picked up. That one was already sitting atop a chassis.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal

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