Looking Back: 1980 to Y2K

The Port Bureau Embraces the Information Age; Launches the Marine Exchange

The advance into the Information Age changed the landscape of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. While print was still vital, desk top computers and keyboards gradually began to replace combing through the vade mecum of transportation rates and sped up accurate data delivery to customers.

The July 1987 Port of Houston Magazine detailed the importance of the information services of the Port Bureau to its membership.

“The bureau provides access to a smorgasbord of information about rail, motor carrier and shipping rates for the Port of Houston and the Port of Freeport, Texas.

‘Most cargo moves at contract rates, which are usually lower than the published tariff rates,’ explains John Burke, executive vice president of the Houston Port Bureau. ‘We can give a member a range of current rates that will place him in a much better position to negotiate when he starts trying to move a shipment.’

The bureau responds to letters, telephone queries and telecopier requests from members, gathering the information needed and responding as quickly as possible. Much of the data is on paper and computerized. For example, the bureau’s computer system can tell a shipper what the range of ocean rates is on a specific commodity moving between the United States and any other point in the world. Minibridge, microbridge, all-water, service contracts and even major NVO rates are available to subscribers to the Port Bureau’s system.

‘The member doesn’t have to worry about outdated tariff lists,’ Burke said. ‘And he doesn’t have to search through several reference volumes to find the cheapest rate. We’ll give him just the information he needs.”

Another vital information branch of the Port Bureau was organized in 1983. The Marine Exchange of the West Gulf, Inc., was organized as a subsidiary of the Port Bureau to provide “information and advice on ship movements, agents, owners and transportation services such as estimated times of arrival, tailored telephone reports, mishap reports, etc.” to its membership.

Prior to the formation of the Marine Exchange, a marine reporting station was operated by Morgan’s Point Maritime Services, a privately-owned firm. Morgan’s Point has been the traditional reporting point for vessels arriving and departing the Port of Houston from its earliest days when a strategically located lookout would leap from tree to horse to quickly carry the news of a vessel arrival to the maritime community.

In January 1983, the Morgan’s Point Maritime Services was sold to the newly chartered Marine Exchange of the West Gulf. The Port of Houston Magazine profiled the new organization in its October 1983 issue, enumerating the broad array of information services available.

“By early 1984, the Marine Exchange of the West Gulf, Inc., is to have a computer link with the nine other major marine exchanges in the United States. These 10 marine exchanges (including the West Gulf) have formed, and work through, the National Association of Marine Exchanges, Inc., (NAME) to gather, process and distribute ship location information.

… As the Marine Exchange of the West Gulf, the reporting system has been expanded to cover all ports from Brownsville, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana.

In the near future, as the NAME computer system goes online, the Marine Exchange will regularly transmit to the central computer reports on ship arrivals and departures in the West Gulf. In return the regional West Gulf Exchange will receive information about vessels scheduled for Houston and other West Gulf ports.

In addition, using the central data bank, the Marine Exchange will be able to locate vessels in all U.S. ports, and will be able to develop statistical information on ship movements, types of vessels in a particular trade, etc.

Information and statistics on regional ship activities will be handled using the Marine Exchange’s own computer and data base. Basic information provided to exchange customers includes the vessel’s name, its flag or country of registration, its type, arrival and departure times, dock, and local agent.”

By its 61st anniversary in 1990, the Port Bureau was noted for its continuing work in representing the interests of the port region before federal and state legislative bodies and regulatory agencies. “The shipping industry is still under a certain amount of regulation on the federal level, so the bureau is involved with a number of regulatory issues,” John Burke, executive vice president of the Port Bureau, told the Port of Houston Magazine in September 1990. “We provide a certain amount of lobbying, but we also prepare data for legislators and other key individuals in the congressional system.”

During 1990s, deregulation in the transportation industry changed the shape of the Port Bureau’s long-standing rate-providing service operations. However, the business model expanded in other ways as the Port Bureau began providing a range of services to the 150 members of the Houston Customhouse Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association during that time period. This service would continue well into the new millennium. The Port Bureau also moved from its home of approximately 30 years at the Houston World Trade Center downtown to the Port of Houston Authority Executive Offices at the Turning Basin in the early part of the 90s decade.

As the 21st century approached, new concerns arose, particularly over the potential computer systems dating error known as the Y2K bug. Any industry or organization that relied on accurate time and dates – meaning everyone – was at risk from the Y2K bug, and programmers worked diligently across the country to remedy the problem.

The Port Bureau was involved in its share of the work to prepare for Y2K. A notice to ship agents from the Port Bureau, published in the April 1999 Port of Houston Magazine, offers a glimpse into the intensive focus on Y2K readiness for the port region.

“Representatives of public and private marine terminals at the Port of Houston and maritime support organizations, including the Houston Pilots, have established that the operators of facilities and services in the Houston Ship Channel will conduct “business as usual” over the Y2K period.

Each operator has expressed confidence that their own computer assisted activities will be free of technical impediment and in full operation. Checks and systems upgrades are ongoing and will be completed before the new millennium.

To ensure all vessels and barges visiting the Port of Houston are well prepared, a notice will be sent to all ships agents doing business in the Houston Ship Channel to alert their Principals that all Port of Houston marine terminals and port services including pilots, tugs, etc. will be operating normally over the Y2K period. It is expected that vessels and their crews be fully operational during the transition.
A public meeting will be held in May by the U.S. Coast Guard and the maritime industry to review Y2K readiness and to examine what additional steps may be required to ensure a smooth transition. Prior assurance of vessel and personnel Y2K compliance may be called for before a vessel will be permitted to enter the Houston Ship Channel over the critical time period. At this time, however, please alert Ship Principals to Houston’s millennium arrangements.”

If you are old enough, you probably remember right where you were as the year 1999 turned into 2000, slightly nervous about what might just happen. Thankfully, it was a non-event from a technical standpoint, and it was “business as usual” everywhere. Just think, information was disbursed, the digital bug was fixed, and the crisis was averted – and there wasn’t even an app for that! The new millennium looked to bring new prosperity to Houston’s homeports, and the Port Bureau was ready for yet another new era on 1/1/2000.

Judith Schultz

  • Date October 8, 2019
  • Tags 2019 September