Intermodal Rides Into The Future

While intermodal providers cite a number of reasons, three interrelated themes emerge: cost reduction, improvements in efficiency and environmental impact.


Looking for new strategies to enable your business to cut costs and increase supply chain efficiency? Want to boost your reputation as an environmentally conscious company at the same time? Then consider investigating how you might use the intermodal transportation network to send or receive shipments.

Intermodal moves products with multiple modes of transportation. While it relies primarily upon rail shipments, it frequently involves sending merchandise via truck, ship or even by plane. Freight containers are utilized in intermodal, which eliminates direct handling of shipments and potentially reduces damage as well.

Its popularity shows signs of healthy growth. The total number of trailers and containers shipped by intermodal rail increased by nearly 33 percent between 1998 and 2008. Annual shipments account for nearly 25 million containers, according to the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), Calverton, MD.

Demand for intermodal has meant increased activity for rail companies, such as Union Pacific, one of the nation’s largest intermodal providers. Rail shipments—once the primary method for moving fresh fruit, vegetables and other perishable products—began declining in the 1960s. Increasing interest in the use of intermodal started in the 1990s, partly as a reaction to rising fuel costs. Rail cars were redesigned, refrigerated and enlarged for handling of bigger loads.

The commitment to intermodal hasn’t waned. Rail shipments tripled between 1980 and 2002, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), Washington, and companies have invested heavily in the infrastructure and the associated technology. Union Pacific Corp., Omaha, spent more than $30 billion on its rail network since 2000, enabling the construction or modernization of intermodal facilities and creation of a route structure that offers truck-competitive delivery services. The company boasts the largest and most modern fleet of refrigerated boxcars and the industry’s most diverse rail network.

Today, intermodal is being used with increasing frequency in the food and beverage industries. Shipments of fresh produce, frozen goods, as well as beer and wine, are being sent by industry participants now relying more and more on intermodal transportation solutions. While intermodal providers cite a number of reasons for considering adoption of this mode of shipping, three interrelated themes emerge: cost reduction, improvements in efficiency and environmental impact.

 

Comparing Truck And Intermodal Shipping

According to the EPA’s Smart Way Transport Partnership, intermodal transportation doesn’t aim at eliminating truck shipments; it takes advantage of the best attributes of both truck and rail shipping, integrating them for improved efficiency. Since rail can save considerable fuel, railroad cars can carry cargo over long distance, high volume corridors. Trucks or barges move the loads between the rail terminals and the cargo’s ultimate destination.

Comparing the long-haul capabilities of truck and intermodal does reveal a number of differences. Chris Mnichowski, president and CEO of Cold Train Services, regards intermodal as more efficient and environmentally friendly than truck shipments. “Rail transportation can haul more cargo than a single truck, which makes rail far more efficient than trucks to move large loads,” he says. “Using rail helps to significantly reduce environmental pollution by decreasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rail transportation also boasts better fuel economy, an important cost variable that can affect shippers, their customers and can make products more price competitive for consumers. According to Tom Lange, director of corporate communications at Union Pacific, the company’s intermodal fleet can move a ton of freight nearly 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel, adding significant environmental benefits to the equation.

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