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Winter 2007 Vol. V, No. 2

2,230 Ships, 127,656 containers, 1 Transport Research Unit

In the heart of Beirut, the Beirut Container Terminal Consortium’s transshipment business has tripled since the July war. And by studying other Mediterranean ports and planning new strategies to improve efficiency on the ground, TRU is helping the consortium optimize operations at the Beirut Port.

This article was originally scheduled to appear in the fall 2006 issue of MainGate. When the war broke out in July, a number of things changed—including the content of the next issue of MainGate. We thought, however, that this story about AUB’s Transport Research Unit and the Beirut Container Terminal Consortium was a particularly wonderful—and quite unique—example of AUB interacting with the community, so we are including it in this issue.

“We were sitting at home watching TV and we saw a picture of the dean shaking hands with some people. We were curious. So, we turned up the volume and heard the announcer say that there was going to be some kind of transportation “thing” at AUB. We knew right away that we wanted to be a part of it.” That was Radwan Nayfe explaining how he first learned of AUB’s new Transport Research Unit. (The person they saw on television was Dean Ibrahim Hajj.)

Nayfe’s friend Toufic Ramia, who is also a final-year engineering student at AUB, laughs and explains, “We wasted no time. We started trying to figure out what this was and how we could get involved right away.” It didn’t take long. It turns out that one of their professors—Isam Kaysi—was one of the key players in this new “thing.”

“I’ve known for a long time that this was something I wanted to do at AUB. My idea was to bring together researchers from several related disciplines, including civil engineering, urban planning, economics, environmental engineering and sciences, sociology, business, electrical and computer engineering, and possibly other disciplines and establish a center that would become the focal point for transportation research and studies for the region,” Kaysi explains. There are similar organizations at many universities in the United States and Canada—at the University of Toronto, for example, where Kaysi was a visiting professor for two years before returning to AUB in 2004—and at MIT where he first met one of the other “key players” in the establishment of the Transport Research Unit—Ammar Kanaan—in 1989.

What is it? What does it do?
AUB’s Transport Research Unit (TRU) was established in February 2006 to encourage and facilitate coordination between the academic and the corporate worlds in the field of transportation. The TRU is not a new idea. MIT, for example, where Kaysi and Kanaan met as students has had a Center for Transportation & Logistics for many years that provides “significant contributions to logistics modeling and supply chain management for shippers.” This is exactly the type of support that the TRU is providing to the Beirut Container Terminal Consortium (BCTC). The consortium, which includes the International Port Management Beirut, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, and the International Maritime Associates, was chosen to operate the Beirut Container Terminal in November 2004. It began operations a month later.

Kanaan, who is chairman and general manager of the consortium, explains that one of the reasons for deciding to invest in the container terminal in Beirut was to take advantage of the “extraordinary human capital of Lebanon.” He smiles and admits that some of his colleagues were less enthusiastic than he was, but “maybe because I am from here, I was not as easily deterred. I knew—I know—the potential of this place.” Having convinced his colleagues that it made sense for them to invest in the container terminal in Beirut and not somewhere else in the region, he moved quickly to help establish a Transport Research Unit at AUB.

Kanaan agrees with Kaysi that their experience at MIT was critical. “I knew this could work and what we needed to do to make sure that it would work. Defining the scope of work is critical” Kanaan explains. One of the areas in which the TRU is most involved with the BCTC is developing the modules behind some of the customized software that BCTC is using. Kanaan and his colleagues have invested heavily in IT. “I’m looking to AUB for practical recommendations—solutions that can work and make a difference. I’m pleased to say that we are already seeing results.” One of the suggestions that the AUB team made that has resulted in improved efficiency is to implement a new SMS-based, automated “appointments system” that makes it possible for them to achieve more efficient use of yard cranes and reduced truck turnaround time based on the expected workload for any given day.

The Relationship
Although 30 percent of those in the management ranks at the Beirut Container Terminal are AUB alumni, the person who works most closely with AUB on a day-to-day basis is Serge Jabbour, who is not an AUB grad. Jabbour, who has “been here from the beginning,” meets with AUB personnel at least weekly to coordinate the relationship and make sure that both sides are getting what they need.

One of the unusual features of this relationship is BCTC’s willingness to share data—data that could potentially be useful to its competitors—with AUB. “We are swimming in a sea of data,” Kaysi says. For example, he explains, “they send us information on the daily status of all containers stacked in the terminal storage yard, which is useful for operations planning purposes, including details on the container type (20 foot or 40 foot), its ‘dwell time’ in the yard, the vessel that carried it and its shipping line, its exact location in the storage block (row number, stack number), etc.”

He goes on to explain, “Actually, this is quite an unusual experience. Often you have to beg companies for data.” Jabbour smiles when he hears this story. “You should see what I sent him just last night!” When asked about this, Kanaan says that this has never been an issue for him. “I told the staff here from the beginning. Give AUB what they need. It’s a no-brainer for me. I’m interested in results, in improvements. If our competitors can do things better, good for them.”

Jabbour works closely with Farah Mneimneh, an AUB grad who now works full-time on the TRU project. Although everyone involved in this project will tell you that Kaysi is very involved in all aspects of TRU’s work, it is Mneimneh who attends all the meetings with BCTC personnel at the port. She explains that she and her colleagues “are looking for opportunities to re-engineer some of the critical operations at the container terminal. For example, we are hoping to identify a way to increase efficiency by adopting new planning strategies for container pickup/discharge operations on any given day. That would result in an increase in the number of containers served by yard cranes during busy daily periods, which ultimately reduces truck turnaround time in the yard as well as vessel waiting time.”

Ramia and Nayfe (the two students who learned about the project while watching TV), who are also working for the TRU, are conducting a study to compare the Beirut port with other Eastern Mediterranean ports. They are comparing terminals using some of the standard benchmarks in the industry, such as berth occupancy (percentage of time the berth is busy), berth and crane productivity (number of container moves per hour), crane downtime, and truck delivery turnaround time. This is part of a larger effort to assess the growth potential of the Beirut port. Ramia and Nayfe agree that the opportunity to work with the TRU and on this particular project is a “wonderful opportunity for us.”

Impact in the Classroom
Ramia and Nayfe are not the only AUB students who are benefiting from the presence of a TRU at AUB. Several master’s students have chosen to do port-related research. Serene Saab, for example, is assessing the transshipment operations at the Beirut Container Terminal (BCT) to determine what it would need to do to increase its share of the lucrative regional containerized trade traffic. She explains, “We will be looking not only at the facilities at BCT itself but also at the other ports in the region.” She plans to then develop a model that will make it possible to quantify the factors involved in attracting transshipment traffic and the reasons why carriers prefer one port over another.

Although Saab is still in the early stages of her research, Rayan Mahmoud Khraibani completed the master’s program in Engineering Management in June 2006. For his master’s thesis, he developed a financial framework that could be used to evaluate port privatization options using the Beirut Port as a case study. “What I did,” Khraibani says, “is to synthesize container ports privatization models, analyze their advantages and disadvantages, identify risks, revenues and costs associated with the privatization scheme, and build an overall evaluation—and a financial—framework. I then tested the framework for the case of the Beirut port, which recently adopted a privatization scheme that assigned the management and operation of the newly constructed container terminal to a private company.”

Kaysi explains that getting his students involved in the TRU is one of his top priorities. For example, in spring 2006 he asked the students in his Transportation Economics course to prepare a bid for the management and operation of the container terminal at the Port of Beirut. “I wanted them to look at all aspects of the problem and not to approach this as just a design problem. To do this assignment, the students had to make some assumptions using available (and incomplete) data sources and their engineering judgment. Many of them were not comfortable with this at first—we engineers like dealing with hard data—but this is the way it is in the real world. Our students need these skills. This is the type of assignment that they will be given during their careers.”

Looking Ahead
The Transport Research Unit is moving quickly to establish itself as the place to come for expertise and advice on transportation-related issues, not just in Lebanon but in the Middle East. Its work for the BCTC, which is a founding member of the unit, has been critical in establishing its reputation in the region. Kaysi explains that there are many areas in which the TRU could make a contribution and that it is already working on a World Bank-funded project to revitalize public transportation in Lebanon. “We have shown that transportation is more than just highways,” he says. He is very proud of the unit’s work for BCTC and praises Kanaan in particular. “He understands the value of academia. He had the vision and saw how AUB could make a real difference to the container terminal’s operations.”

The pace of activity at the terminals is greater than ever, not only because of the need to work through the backlog that was caused by the war in 2006. Because of the dramatic increase in transshipment business, the BCTC and TRU are working together to address the urgent, new operational challenges that the terminal faces.