KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Just after 5:30 on a chilly November morning, David Heide arrives at the shipping terminal on the industrial fringes of Kansas City, wondering what fresh torment the day has in store.
His company, Jack Cooper Transport, delivers new cars to dealerships from auto factories around the United States. It carries some on tractor-trailers, and sends more by rail.
Before the global supply chain descended into chaos, the terminal ran on a steady and dependable rhythm. Roughly once every minute, a new car emerged from the General Motors Fairfax factory next door and landed in the terminal parking lot. Rail cars brought in a predictable influx of vehicles from other G.M. factories. Mr. Heide, the Fairfax terminal manager, could deploy drivers and yard crews with assurance.
No one uses words like predictable these days. As Mr. Heide traverses the darkened yard, he has no idea how many rail cars the short-staffed railroad has sent out, or how many vehicles G.M. will place on hold. He does not know if there will be enough work for the crew he has summoned this week.
“It’s been real crazy for a lot of terminals,” Mr. Heide says.
The Great Supply Chain Disruption has turned shipping terminals into volatile zones full of uncertainties and best guesses. Nearly two years into the pandemic, reliable planning is still next to impossible at every point of the supply chain. No one is fully in control of their own circumstances, nor can they divine the fortunes of their suppliers, distributors and customers. The result is a feedback loop of variability that impedes efforts to turn the economy back on after the virus shutdowns.
The Fairfax terminal highlights a troubling reality in the global economy: So many unknowns dog the supply chain that any semblance of normalcy remains far-off, even as some of the chaos abates and shipping prices edge down.
Between February and September, G.M. largely halted operations at its Fairfax plant owing to a critical shortage of computer chips — a key element in contemporary cars. The plant is producing again, running one shift instead of its previous two or three.
Still, like the rest of the trucking industry, the terminal is scrambling to recruit truck drivers in anticipation of an eventual flood of new vehicles. For now, Mr. Heide is resisting pressure from G.M. to move faster.
“Their expectations are that you can just flip a switch and there’s 20 drivers,” says Mr. Heide, 49. “Then I’m stuck paying 20 people who have nothing to do.”
Not that G.M. is the culprit. The automaker is contending with its own logistical problems.
“Our customers are not trying to be a pain in the butt,” says Sarah Amico, executive chair of Jack Cooper Holdings …….