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Edward T. Yau
Representative - Greater China

News Details
Port Of Long Beach Executive Director Christopher Lytle:
’We’re Pretty Bullish About This Year . . .’
Michael Gougis - Contributing Writer

April 23, 2013 – Getting the containers off the ship is only half the battle. You’ve got to get the stuff inside the containers to its final destination, rapidly and in a cost-effective manner.

And that is why the Port of Long Beach has on the boards massive improvements in both rail and vehicle transportation systems – when you get down to it, it’s not just about loading and unloading ships, but moving goods.

The ability to do that, as well as to service the cargo ships that come to call, is what will keep the Port of Long Beach economically healthy and competitive, says Executive Director Christopher Lytle.

“We take the competition very seriously. We never assume that this is our cargo, that we’ve got this business. We need to show the shippers that we offer good value,” Lytle said in a recent interview in his office. “We do that by infrastructure – it’s rail, road, bridges, upgrading the terminals, all of that. You give the customer good value and that puts you in a better place.”

Right now, the port is in a good place, based on the volume of cargo it is handling. Last year, two major shipping lines – Mediterranean Shipping Company and CMA CGM, two of the three largest shippers in the world – dropped anchor in the Port of Long Beach. While the total number of containers dropped slightly in 2012 to 6,045,662, the year ended on an upward arc, and that momentum has continued into 2013, Lytle says.

“We had a really great year last year, particularly in the final quarter. We brought in two major lines, the second- and third-largest lines in the world,” Lytle says. “That was very good news, and the cargo numbers reflect that surge in business. We had a lot of very positive indicators as the year ended. Right now, year to date, our cargo volumes are up 26 percent. We are looking at a pretty good 2013. We’re pretty bullish about the year.”

Getting the cargo from those new customers off the docks and into the marketplace has been the push behind transit improvements. Lytle gestures outside of his office window at the redeveloped International Transportation Service terminal, where containers are leaving the port on new rail lines rather than via truck.

And just to the north, work has begun on the Green Port Gateway rail project, an $80 million realignment and reconstruction project that will add close to six miles of new track for trains leaving the port, Lytle says.

“It allows more trackage that alleviates the choke points and allows this rail traffic to get out quicker, without any delays. And the locomotives aren’t sitting there idling,” Lytle says. “The more cargo that is placed on rails, the cleaner it is, the faster it is, the more efficient it is.”

In addition, the long-overdue Gerald Desmond Bridge replacement project is underway, allowing better truck traffic over the span and allowing larger vessels to pass beneath it.

Port officials aren’t overlooking the services and facilities at the water’s edge. The $1.2 billion Middle Harbor project is underway, anchored by a 40-year lease with OOCL. That deal is a keystone in the port’s future plans, Lytle says.

“The implications of that downstream 10 years, 20 years, 30 years for the port are very, very positive,” Lytle says. “It means this is going to provide the port with an earnings stream. That will allow us to go in and invest in clean technologies. It allows us to do a lot of things in terms of community improvements. It will mean more money for the city ultimately. In addition to that, it creates thousands of jobs. A lot of those jobs will be for people in Long Beach.”

The cargo coming through the port is shifting, in one key case back to a normal state of affairs, in another in a new direction of growing importance. Auto imports are on the rise, a result of Toyota rebounding from the tsunami that rocked Japan’s industrial capabilities.

“Toyota was horrifically impacted by that disaster,” Lytle says. “They’ve dug out of that, they’ve dug out of the general recession, and now they’re doing very, very well, and we’re benefiting from that.” And while the biggest trading partner is China, Ecuador is on the list of Top 10 Port of Long Beach trading partners.

“A lot of off-season produce comes up [from South America] to the California markets, including wines and other products. That’s a line of business that is starting to emerge,” Lytle says. “It’s still small, but it will become more important in future years.”

While the port has made major progress in pollution reduction, more is on the way, Lytle says. At the beginning of 2014, state law will require half of the container ships that call on California ports to plug in to shore power. To meet this requirement, the Port is engaged in a $200 million construction project to wire up the berths to feed electricity to their massive visitors.

“That means that on those vessels all of those giant diesel engines that run 24/7 will shut down. The clean air impacts of that are huge,” Lytle says. And the requirement has an unanticipated benefit: Older, dirtier ships will require expensive retrofitting to plug into shore power. Newer, more efficient, less-polluting ships are coming wired up and ready to go. So shipping lines will be more inclined to send their newer, cleaner ships here. And the port is offering additional cash incentives to shippers who send “green” cargo ships to call at Long Beach.

Port officials know that to keep Long Beach in the shipping game, they need to stay on increasingly good terms with the surrounding community while giving shippers a real reason to come here. Lowering emissions is one way of staying on good terms with the neighbors; improving facilities and transportation capabilities keeps the Port of Long Beach high on the shippers’ list of ports of call.

“We have the water depth, we have the cranes. This is where cargo wants to come. It’s really ours to lose,” Lytle says. “I think we’re doing all the right things. We’re investing, we’re building, we have great relations with the customer base – we never forget who they are.”