As the sun creeps up over Charleston Harbor, Port of Charleston employees race up 18-foot ladders and into the second deck of rail cars parked at the Columbus Street Terminal.
Seconds later, a low rumbling begins from within the graffiti-covered rail cars that sit along East Bay Street in downtown Charleston. The sound grows louder as workers drive BMW after BMW down a ramp and onto the terminal.
Once the top deck is cleared, workers quickly move to the bottom deck, emptying out the next row of vehicles sitting in the train.
The BMWs were loaded the night before at the BMW plant in Spartanburg County. A Norfolk Southern train traversed the state overnight, arriving in Charleston before sunrise.
The rail cars are split into what are known as “spots” when they arrive — meaning the long rail line is sectioned off into more manageable parts — before they can be emptied.
Drivers then peel away from the rail line in search of each vehicle’s designated parking spot on the terminal.
“It’s been called the boot camp of the port. It is the most physically demanding job,” said Adam Henderson, the manager of roll-on, roll-off cargo for the S.C. State Ports Authority.
A team of about 16 drivers works each shift six days a week for the ports authority. The drivers learn to drive cars with manual transmissions and right-hand-drive cars.
Port workers unload 700 to 1,000 vehicles onto the terminal each day. Workers must move quickly to unload the train so it can head back to Greer, and they must work carefully to avoid damaging the vehicles.
“Drivers need awareness of their surroundings. Safety, endurance and patience are the three big things for our drivers,” Henderson said. “They’re doing the same thing repetitively, over and over, and we don’t want them to lose focus, but No. 1 is safety. There’s no reason to rush and get things done fast if you’re just going to hurt somebody or tear something up.”
The terminal is divided into mini parking lots based on global destination. Every car on the terminal gets time-stamped, scanned and logged into an inventory database before it is parked. The cars then await the arrival of containerships headed for European or Asian markets.
“We never, ever miss a car,” Henderson said.
The port is now preparing to make room for Volvo Cars’ export operations at the Columbus terminal. The automaker will initially truck the S60 sedans from its new Berkeley County plant to the downtown Charleston terminal for export.
“That’s how BMW started out,” Henderson said.
Volvo plans to ship about 30,000 of its S.C.-produced vehicles through the Port of Charleston. The company expects to produce about 65,000 cars initially when it begins production in 2018.
Planning at the port involves studying the terminal layout to maximize space, as well as ensuring drivers are ready to move the products quickly and safely.
Loading the ships
When the cargo ships arrive at the Columbus Street Terminal, dockworkers and Longshoremen take over the car loading operation.
The Longshoremen drive the cars onto the ships; inside is a flurry of activity.
Workers stand on the ship’s ramp, directing traffic with light wands. These wands flash green or red, indicating whether it is safe to drive vehicles up to the next deck.
Around 75 Longshoremen drive the BMWs around each deck on the ship, going in circles as they climb the giant floating parking garage until they arrive at their designated parking spot.
The work is a dizzying domino effect: Parking each vehicle, jumping out, securing the straps and climbing into a waiting car that brings them back down to the terminal level to do it all over again.
“The idea is when you take the cars off the vessel, you shouldn’t have to back anything up. You just drive them off as they’re parked,” said Stephen Milner, the Charleston vessel operations supervisor for Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics.
Cars are loaded onto various containerships an average of three times a week at the port. The vehicles aboard the Torino will make the 12-day journey to Bremerhaven, Germany. The ship typically carries about 5,500 cars for each trip.
Roslyn Wright, a Longshoreman for 20 years, drives the shuttles that transport workers up and down the containerships in between parking the vehicles. Wright said the day goes by quickly when loading BMWs.
“No one is standing around. There’s not so much conversation. It’s all about ‘Let’s do this.’ The flagmen are down there making sure the flow is there. There’s not much stoppage. It’s all about production flow and safety,” Wright said. “Most
people would say that’s very remedial, but seconds turn into minutes and minutes turn into more time. ... Safety is definitely the most important and crucial thing to think about, and production keeps us No. 1.”
Each driver loads about five cars per hour on average.
“We want to get the ships out of here as quickly as possible,” Milner said.
This story originally appeared in the May 15, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.