In the past few years, intermodal rail has dramatically boosted its reputation in the minds of supply chain executives. It’s no secret that not too long ago, this mode of transportation was the last choice for time-sensitive cargo.
However, so much has changed.
For starters, North America’s Class I railroads have made sizeable investments in their networks to keep up with shippers’ demands. Since the passage of the Staggers Act in 1980, freight railroads have reinvested $480 billion in private funds to modernize their networks. In 2010, Class I’s invested nearly $10 billion in capital funds, while this year the total is expected to rise to $12 billion in capital expenditures. These are big investments, and even more noteworthy in the current economic climate.
In August 2010, Union Pacific opened its Joliet Intermodal Terminal near Chicago. The $370 million, 550-acre facility is focused on moving international freight to and from the U.S. West Coast. Annual lift capacity for intermodal containers is 500,000+. The facility, which operates 24/7, also features state-of-the-art technology, including biometrics and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for safer, secure, and expedited handling of containers.
Earlier this year, CSX opened its National Gateway—the cornerstone for a new double-stack freight rail corridor between East Coast ports and the Midwest—which is located in northwest Ohio.
The National Gateway is expected to handle a throughput capacity, including block swaps and lifts, of nearly 2 million containers annually. Technologies and green designs, ranging from ultra-efficient electric cranes that lower emissions, to optical scanners that reduce truck idle times, qualify the National Gateway as one of the country’s most environmentally friendly and technologically-advanced intermodal terminals. CSX estimates that the National Gateway will eventually convert more than 14 billion highway miles to rail and decrease fuel consumption by nearly 2 billion gallons.
Another key project that launched last year was Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor, hailed as one of the most extensive railroad engineering projects in modern times. The project consisted of a public-private partnership between Norfolk Southern, the federal government, and the states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio, which created a double-stack route from the Port of Virginia to Chicago. Vertical clearances on 28 tunnels were raised to accommodate double-stack trains along the entire route, shaving off 250 miles and one entire day from the previous route.
Meanwhile, last month, BNSF released a draft environmental impact report to support its plans for a $500 million Southern California International Gateway (SCIG), which the railroad says will be the greenest intermodal facility in the US.
According to BNSF, the SCIG will allow containers to be loaded onto trains just four miles from the port complex of Los Angeles-Long Beach, instead of travelling 24 miles to the railhead located south of downtown Los Angeles. In addition, SCIG will allow 1.5 million more containers to move by more efficient and environmentally preferred rail through the Alameda Corridor each year, greatly reducing truck traffic congestion in Southern California.
BNSF states this will remove more than 1.5 million truck trips from the freeway every year, and also help improve air quality in the region.
The SCIG will feature wide-span all-electric cranes, ultra-low-emission switching locomotives, and low-emission rail yard equipment.
Railex finds its niche
The steady improvement in the nation’s freight rail network prompted Railex, a division of New York-based ADS Management, to initiate a new service targeting produce and temperature-sensitive goods moving from the U.S. West Coast, specifically the Pacific Northwest and Central California, to the East Coast. That was a little over 4 years ago and demand continues to grow, according to Bill Collins, northeast region general manager for Railex.