LOS ANGELES—U.S. freight networks saw a steady flow of inbound goods and materials last month, as shippers topped up inventory ahead of an annual weeklong factory shutdown in Asia during the Lunar New Year.
“Everyone is kind of preparing, loading the shotgun for another strong month,” said Diogo Lobo, chief executive of NorthPoint Logistics in Kansas City.
The nation’s largest seaport complex, encompassing California’s neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, reported a record February, importing 725,337 loaded 20-foot-equivalent units, a standard measure for container cargo. That bested last February’s imports by 32.2%.
According to trade-research firm Panjiva Inc., February was a “bumper” month for freight forwarders, the businesses that arrange cargo shipments for retailers and manufacturers. Inbound, oceanborne shipments booked by freight forwarders rose 13% from the same month last year. Minnesota-based C.H. Robinson led the growth with a 32% increase year over year.
The National Retail Federation in its monthly Global Port Tracker report estimated the nation’s biggest ports handled 1.66 million TEUs last month, a 13.7% increase from last year. March volume is expected to dip down to 1.53 million TEUs as a result of the pause in factory production during the holiday.
A continuing shortage of truck-hauling capacity means more of that cargo is traveling inland from the ports by rail, raising costs and lengthening timelines for shippers. U.S. rail intermodal shipments last month nearly matched the level of last October, during the peak fall shipping season. Shipments surged 6.9% from the same month a year ago and grew by nearly 14,000 loads from January to February, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The export side also tightened last month. Mr. Lobo said agriculture exporters often see beef, pork and chicken exports tick up in March, and many of his customers were busy last month stocking their refrigerated warehouses.
At the Southern California ports, export loads rose 4.8% last month, compared with February of last year, to 288,507 TEUs. Mr. Lobo said it now can cost twice as much to move a container overland to the port as it does to ship it across the Pacific Ocean.
“Everybody is trying to mitigate the inland costs,” he said. “Truck capacity is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Write to Erica E. Phillips at [email protected]