The Baltimore Bridge Collapse – Another Vulnerability, Another Lesson to Learn

Baltimore Bridge Collapse

When the Sri Lanka-bound container ship Dali hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore (Maryland), the world came crashing down (literally) for many people. Along with the loss of 6 precious lives, there was another shockwave sent through the global supply chain industry. The incident is one of the many perfect examples that shed light on the inherent vulnerabilities in critical supply chain infrastructure and highlight the importance of being resilient in the light of challenges.

The FSK Bridge or the Baltimore Bridge lies in the heart of the Baltimore harbor and suffered structural damage when the 935-foot-long Dali collided with one of its support pillars, prompting the immediate suspension of vessel traffic in and out of the Port of Baltimore. While this incident has brought immediate consequences to the local and regional supply chain networks, its broader implications extend far beyond the shores of Baltimore.

The Baltimore Bridge is considered to be a vital artery in the maritime shipping network and facilitates the movement of cargo through one of the United States’ key maritime hubs. The Port of Baltimore ranks as the 9 largest port in the country and processes significant volumes of cargo each year, thereby, pushing trade activities further.

In 2023 alone, the port handled approximately 50 million tonnes and USD 80 billion worth of cargo, including automobiles, machinery, agricultural equipment, liquefied natural gas, and sugar. The port’s operations directly support over 15,000 jobs, with an additional 140,000 jobs dependent on its activity, emphasizing its critical role in the regional economy.

“The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is a devastating blow to Baltimore’s port operations,” said Christian Sur, EVP of Ocean Freight at Unique Logistics. “While Baltimore is a smaller port relative to others on the Eastern Coast, it plays a crucial role in the regional supply chain.”

As a result of the accident, not only the roads leading to the site of the collapse were closed, but the Port of Baltimore also saw its gates closing. Albeit temporary, the closure of the Baltimore port resulted in significant economic repercussions, with preliminary estimates suggesting daily losses of up to USD 15 million and potential insurance claims totaling USD 3 billion.

“As the supply chain leader at UST, I am deeply concerned about the implications of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse on the global supply chain industry. The immediate impact will be felt by businesses attempting to divert freight away from Baltimore,” said Jonathan Colehower, Managing Director, Global Operations & Supply Chain Practice, UST.

Moreover, the suspension of vessel traffic disrupted supply chains, compelling businesses to seek alternative routes and ports for their cargo.

“Majority of containers that would be diverted are to be handled at New York/New Jersey and/or Norfolk, VA as many ships originally bound for Baltimore would have made calls at these ports anyway given multiple East Coast port calls on container freight services that cover the region. Stoppage of vessel service to Baltimore became more of a concern due to the fact that there were already ongoing numerous challenges faced by shippers, including ongoing diversions in Red Sea region and drought in the Panama Canal limiting canal crossing,” said Sur. 

The collapse of Baltimore’s FSK Bridge underscores the critical importance of robust infrastructure and resilient supply chain networks, yet again. The volume of global trade grows by the hour and considering that a huge chunk of it is transported by water, it is obvious that fleets as well as vessels grow in size. This increase in the vessel size may lead to the risk of infrastructure failures, especially in the case of that created decades ago, and eventually pose a significant threat to supply chain operations.

According to Container Xchange, to minimize the losses, marine terminals in New Jersey and Virginia are extending their gate hours. The Maryland Port Administration remains uncertain regarding the reopening timeline for Baltimore, suggesting that the increased traffic at other Northeast and mid-Atlantic ports may continue for several months. The average price of a 40ft cargo-worthy container in New York and Baltimore was USD 1,415 in March 2024. The prices have decreased from USD 1,910 in September 2023 – marking a 34% decrease. Container prices in Baltimore are higher than in New York.

On the other hand, as a result of the Bridge collapse, there has also been a considerable shift in the service capacity, including that of road transportation. For instance, truck routes have been shifted around Baltimore with the Fort McHenry Tunnel experiencing the largest diversions. Baltimore Harbor Tunnel saw less uptick due to its narrower configuration. Trucking and warehousing costs are also going to rise as distribution networks are redrawn, with goods shipped to alternative ports being trucked back to distribution centers close to Baltimore or transferred to entirely new routes.

While these rerouting efforts demonstrate the industry’s adaptability, they also introduce challenges such as extended travel times and potential bottlenecks. Unlike container vessel capacity, which can be rerouted to other ports once Baltimore port reopens to vessel traffic, over-the-road congestion could escalate quickly without the collapsed bridge way to support.

Jessica Gail, spokesperson for the American Trucking Associations reiterated the vital role of the FSK Bridge and Baltimore Port as critical components of US’ supply chain infrastructure as she shared that annually, approximately 1.3 million trucks cross the bridge – equivalent to 3,600 trucks daily. “With the closure of the bridge, trucks carrying hazardous materials are now compelled to embark on detours spanning 30 miles around Baltimore, as they are prohibited from utilizing the city’s tunnels. These detours not only contribute to delays but also escalate fuel costs,” she said.

“The impact on our operations will be significant in terms of time,” expressed Russell Brehm, the terminal manager at Lee Transport in Baltimore, which specializes in transporting hazardous materials such as petroleum products and chemicals. Brehm estimated that the loss of the bridge will effectively double the transit time, increasing it to two hours to transport loads from the terminal in Baltimore’s Curtis Bay to a gasoline station located in the waterfront neighborhood of Canton.

This incident highlights the need for comprehensive contingency plans that account for alternative transportation routes, modes, and potential delays. Collaboration among industry stakeholders is crucial in assessing the situation, identifying viable solutions, and minimizing disruptions to the supply chain.

The situation – rerouting ships to other, bigger ports in the States – is chaotic because each of those containers has to undergo a new journey through Customs. Shippers/Receivers also need to arrange for a different truck to collect it from a different port. This results in a significant amount of additional work downstream.

According to the Washington Post, “They (the U.S.) rely on half-century-old West German experiments on model ships for a key mathematical formula. Their minimum specifications cite the danger of empty 195-foot barges breaking loose from their moorings and drifting into bridges, a threat that seems quaint compared with the hulking 985-foot container ship that strayed off course after an electrical failure and toppled the FSK Bridge in Baltimore last month.” It also mentions that in 2020, international researchers warned that the standards sharply underestimate the impact of a head-on collision by a big ship into a bridge.

The Baltimore bridge collapse serves as a wake-up call for supply chain leaders to assess the resilience of the port infrastructure in the face of escalating challenges. While trade thrives at some of the world’s busiest ports, there are also concerns regarding their capacity and readiness to withstand major disruptions. This is especially true for ports in Asia which serve as the motor of the global economy – any disruption to port infrastructure in the region could have far-reaching consequences for global trade.

For instance, the Port of Singapore stands out as a beacon of resilience in the maritime industry, with its strategic location and innovative infrastructure solutions. Their proactive measures, such as the deployment of AI-driven vessel management systems and the construction of resilient port facilities, offer valuable lessons for other ports globally. By leveraging data-driven insights and embracing innovative technologies, ports can enhance their resilience and ensure the uninterrupted flow of goods and commerce.

Workers are laboring to remove thousands of tons of debris sitting atop the Dali, the cargo ship that veered off course and struck the 1.6-mile-long (2.57-kilometer-long) bridge. With massive cranes, workers so far have taken away about 1,300 tonnes (1,179 metric tons) of steel. The debris on the stationary ship must be removed before the vessel can be returned to the port.

A third temporary channel for boats to enter and depart the Port of Baltimore has opened, expanding further shipping access as collapsed sections of the FSK Bridge are salvaged before the span can ultimately be rebuilt. The alternate channel, located to the northeast of the fallen bridge, is open to commercially essential vessels, port officials announced on 19th April.

According to sources, the new temporary path, with a controlling depth of 20 feet, a horizontal clearance of 300 feet and a vertical clearance of 135 feet, allows a greater variety of vessels to access the port while crews work to reopen the main channel.

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities inherent in critical infrastructure and the need for proactive measures to mitigate risks and build resilience. As global trade continues to evolve, the importance of robust infrastructure and resilient supply chain networks cannot be overstated. By learning from past incidents and embracing innovative solutions, both in the United States and Asia, we can navigate through challenges and build a more resilient future for the global supply chain industry.

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