Take a look around your house, office or car.
Whether you see a pile of laundry, a laptop or children’s toys, chances are good that these everyday items traveled across the country or around the world before reaching you. And the journey that these goods and products took affects everything from what stocks the shelves of your local store to the prices you pay.
For businesses, providing consumers with goods both affordably and quickly depends on intermodal transportation. Defined as the movement of freight across multiple modes of transportation — think truck, train and cargo ships — intermodal has been a singular force in creating the globalized economy that we know today.
Rail intermodal has been growing rapidly for many years. As America’s economy and population grow, demand for intermodal will grow, too. To prepare, freight railroads have been modernizing their intermodal networks by building new terminals, increasing tunnel heights, enhancing service reliability and more.
Spending in the Sunshine State
Florida’s PortMiami and the Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) worked together to install three 3,000-foot rail tracks on PortMiami’s docks. The installation introduced a whole new level of efficiency, allowing the direct transfer of intermodal shipping containers from some of the world’s largest ships onto trains.
“Our goal is to facilitate the process of cargo shipments for fast and efficient delivery to our customers,” said Port Director and CEO Juan M. Kuryla. “Through our partnership with FECR, we are expanding access for shipments coming into and out of the port to reach their final destinations seamlessly and with great reliability.”
To speed shipments inland, FECR runs multiple scheduled trains each day.
“We currently move around 45,000 containers annually at PortMiami and [now] have the capacity to handle up to 225,000 containers yearly,” said Jim Hertwig, president and CEO of FECR.
That’s important because FECR is a critical link between PortMiami and marketplaces across the United States. FECR delivers cargo to markets in North Florida within 10 hours. Thanks to connections with CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway, shipments arriving at port from places like South America and Asia can reach markets, such as Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina, within two days, and 70% of the U.S. population within four days.
Meanwhile, West Coast ports and railroads are also investing for growth in intermodal shipments. A key component of the Port of Long Beach’s Middle Harbor Terminal Redevelopment project involves expanding on-dock rail by as many as 47 acres to accommodate up to 2,100 trains a year by 2025. Similar facilities across the country help alleviate congestion on the nation’s overburdened highways by shifting freight from trucks to trains.
Improvements Across America
Intermodal improvements aren’t limited to ports in America’s coastal cities. In 2013, BNSF Railway built an intermodal terminal near Edgerton, Kansas, that features six 8,000-foot rail tracks, more than 1,800 parking spaces for intermodal rail cars and room for stacking 4,300 containers. Five wide-span cranes that produce zero emissions transfer containers to and from trains, allowing the facility to handle up to 500,000 intermodal units a year.
Further south, Kansas City Southern Railway Company (KCS) recently opened a new intermodal terminal in landlocked Collin County, Texas. The railroad invested more than $64 million — in private funds, not taxpayer dollars — to build the facility and has more than doubled their intermodal capacity. With modern technology, such as automated gates, optical scanners and biometric identification, KCS can quickly, efficiently and safely move hundreds of thousands of containers a year.
Serving Customers & Consumers
Railroads’ intermodal investments don’t just benefit their customers — they improve the entire transportation network by helping trucks and maritime do what they do best. When the entire transportation network runs efficiently, the savings are often reflected in lower prices paid by consumers.
“What intermodal really does is take advantage of the best potentials of all the modes of transportation,” said Anthony Hatch, an independent transportation analyst. “It gives shippers the flexibility of trucks, the economy of scale of freight rail and the global reach of maritime.”
“The information technology revolution has helped railroads improve intermodal capabilities,” said Hatch. While freight railroads have always collected and used data, today they can share that data in real time across their network and with other railroads too. Enhanced data sharing has improved reliability, making railroads a competitive option for shorter freight journeys that used to be the sole domain of trucks traveling on congested highways.
“Railroads have simply gotten better,” said Hatch. “Today, you’re seeing this level of logistical cooperation aimed at solving shipper problems across railroads and across the intermodal network.”
Jason Howe, regional vice president with the major trucking and logistics company Schneider, agrees. “All railroads are investing in infrastructure and enhanced technology. These investments help goods to flow more smoothly and quickly, and allow us to move more produce with the same number of trucks on the road.”
“In today’s global economy, improvements like these can make or break a business, and they have a major influence on consumers’ choices,” Hatch said. Even in the face of today’s economic headwinds, freight railroads continue to spend heavily to prepare for evolving market needs and provide solutions to customers’ challenges as they arrive — whether by ship, truck or train.