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Thirty bright blue straddle carriers went to work recently at the south wharf of Norfolk International Terminals, ushering in the latest technology being employed to increase productivity at The Port of Virginia.

“Having the ‘strads’ at NIT South gives us the same capability that we have at NIT North,” said Joseph A. Dorto, general manager and chief executive officer at Virginia International Terminals Inc., the Virginia Port Authority’s operating company. “Over time, we’ll reduce the Transtainer operation at NIT South as our primary means of handling containers.”

That productivity comes from eliminating a step in the process of getting containers in and out of the container yard more efficiently. In the past, small trucks, called ‘yard hustlers’ ferried containers around the terminal and they were stacked in neat rows by large Transtainers—a crane and forklift hybrid.

The straddle carriers can do the job of both the yard hustler and the Transtainer. The straddle carrier is very agile mobile crane that because of its height and width, can straddle large container trucks and container stacks up to four boxes tall.

“The [container] crane can put a box onto the ground, a strad grabs it and takes it and loads it onto a truck that’s in the transfer zone,” Dorto said.

“The truck driver already has all his paperwork so he’s ready to go through the gate and get on the road.

“We’re eliminating steps and by doing so we’re looking at a productivity increase of anywhere from six to 10 containers an hour. By 2012, we’ll complete the transition to straddle carriers.”

At NIT North, straddle carriers have been in use since 1998, which made way for the “live gate” where straddle carriers bring containers to trucks waiting in the transfer zone. In July, those straddle carriers were equipped with PrimeRoute and GPS, which are technologies that help the straddle carrier drivers locate containers in the yard with the most efficient route.

Dorto said that 25 additional straddle carriers will join the straddle carrier fleet at NIT South and that all the new equipment will employ the PrimeRoute and GPS technology.

The straddle carrier operation at NIT South is part of the larger renovation at that terminal, which began September 2002. The renovation of the 147-acre terminal is being undertaken in seven phases and will cost $279 million. Work is scheduled for completion in February 2012.