Tag Archives: intermodal

Intermodal’s role in supply-chain solutions

In the September issue of Progressive Railroading, BNSF Railway Co.’s Group Vice President for Consumer Products Katie Farmer penned a guest column on the many ways in which intermodal service is providing solutions to the challenges in the supply chain industry today.

Farmer notes that U.S. rail intermodal volume reached a record 13.5 million containers and trailers in 2014, breaking the previous year’s record. The sector has grown in large part because of the billions of dollars that railroads have invested — and continue to invest — in infrastructure improvements and capacity expansion. Those upgrades have helped the intermodal business to thrive.

In contrast, lane miles added to the nation’s highways have not kept pace with the significant increase in vehicle miles traveled over the past 25 years. That’s where rail intermodal comes in to help reduce congestion on highways, as well as to improve greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, Farmer writes.

To learn more about the role rail-intermodal service plays in the supply-chain industry, read Farmer’s column.

What’s still holding back rail service?

Pictured above, The Belt Railway is the largest intermediate switching terminal railroad in the United States, employing approximately 520 people. The Belt has 28 miles of mainline route with more than 300 miles of switching tracks, allowing it to interchange with every railroad serving the Chicago rail hub. The Belt’s Clearing Yards span a 5.5 mile distance among 786 acres, supporting more than 250 miles of track.

When I looked at my inbox and saw an article from Larry Gross at JOC.COM about “What’s still holding back rail service?”, my first thought was Chicago. I was right, He cut right to the chase. Blamed last winter on the polar vortex. Now, I have some great Winter stories on Chicago too. Belt Railway on it’s back, Indiana Harbor Belt stuck in snow, etc.

But then Larry climbed out of winter and points out some of the rest-of-the-year problems with Chicago. Not going to repeat his excellent explanations. Instead, I’m thinking of new ideas today.

Limited space for trains are a problem. Even the Circus Train can’t find a good parking spot for a show in Chicago. Then crowded highways for intermodals to get out of Chicago.

I route an article on Chicago Bypass. No, I’m not going to go out and suggest we bring back the Peoria & Eastern. Once upon a time it was “quicker via Peoria,” 210 direct, unobstructed miles on the Peoria and Eastern between Peoria and Indianapolis instead of 350 miles via Chicago and congestion. Much has changed in the quarter century since the P&E was an unbroken route. For over a century the railroads had an overcapacity problem, one solved by the mid-1990s by increasing traffic and decreasing route-miles.

37,000 freight cars move through the Chicago area every day (CREATE brochure). Some 25% does not originate or terminate there (“Freight Rail Futures,” Chicago Department of Transportation website). That is over 9,000 cars a day, easily 90 or 100 trains, merely moving through the area.

Indiana Harbor Belt's Gibson Yard in 1950
Indiana Harbor Belt’s Gibson Yard in 1950


Do they all have to go through Chicago? Is Chicago always on the shortest, most direct route? Obviously not.

There is a deeply encrusted practice of “long-routing” to increase the originating road’s cut of revenues. Obviously it requires a longer route, with the obvious disadvantages of greater travel time, more expense, less reliable service, and poorer use of now scarce rail resources.


Running everything through Chicago is defended in rail circles on grounds of more frequent connections and keeping crews in position. Those are usually compelling advantages, to be sure, but not always. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Maybe Chicago has seen it’s time as the “intermodal capital”? Again, does all rail freight have to go through Chicago?

UnionPacificIntermodal

We recently wrote about Union Pacific Intermodal Is Really Rolling Along. Let’s think of ways to better accommodate more intermodal.

Louisville and Indianapolis provide some ideas. Like I said above, we are not going to go out and suggest “new” railroads. That is like tilting windmills. The “grand highway” to Indianapolis is NOT a railroad, it is Interstate Highway 65. But I-65 does not start in Chicago. Instead it starts East of Gary, Indiana. Gary has more railroads running through it than you can shake a stick at. Lots of nearby land for intermodal terminals too. Now how can we bypass Chicago? The obvious way is CN’s old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern. Before you say, what would this save? Just drive Interstate 90 going East of Chicago and observe all the trucks turning South on Interstate 65.

Elgin Joliet & Eastern
Elgin Joliet & Eastern

Yes, I know all about railroad mileage and short hauls. Maybe we need to initiate something I will call: a “Negotiated Switching Rate”. This way no railroad gets hurt. Have the government throw some ecology money in there to save the environment.

Can’t believe Western railroads, with a little help, could not block their trains better to cut down on some of the Chicago switching.

What Will the Panama Canal Do For Florida East Coast Railway?

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The 48 mile-long international waterway known as the Panama Canal allows ships to pass between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean, saving about 8,000 miles from a journey around the southern tip of South America. A project is underway to build new locks as well as wider and deeper channels that is expected to double the canal’s capacity. This will allow megaships to move through the Canal.

Though traffic continues to increase through the canal, many oil supertankers, huge container ships and aircraft carriers can not fit through the canal. There’s even a class of ships known as “Panamax,” those built to the maximum capacity of the Panama canal and its locks. the Panama Canal expansion project will allow ships double the size of current Panamax (“Post-Panamax”) to pass through the canal, dramatically increasing the amount of goods that can pass through the canal.

The expansion project is a little off target and will not be completed until April 2015. What does this expansion mean? The Panama Canal will then accommodate post-Panamax vessels that carry 12,600 containers, compared to today’s ships carrying 4,500 containers.

Shipping containers through the Canal on these larger ships could reduce costs by as much as $75 to $100 per container per voyage, which adds up quickly! When such ships are able to pass through the Panama Canal, business will consequently pick up along both the U.S. Eastern and Gulf coast ports because the ships can take an “all-water” route from Asia to the U.S. East or Gulf coast—bypassing West coast ports and the roads and railways now used to transport goods across the U.S. However, these ships require depths of up to 50 feet of water to navigate. As a result, port authorities along the U.S. Eastern seaboard and Gulf coast are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to dredge the bottoms of their bays and river bottoms to deepen harbors to accommodate the larger ships.

Progressive Railroading has been covering the East Coast ports plus the connecting railroads. As the $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion nears its 2015 completion to allow supersize, Post-Panamax cargo ships to pass through on their way to markets farther north, eastern U.S. ports and a number of railroads are gearing up for an anticipated increase in international intermodal traffic in the coming years. East and Gulf Coast port authorities are developing and deepening their harbors in preparation for the influx of giant ships, and eastern railroads are building or expanding on-dock rail facilities, building intermodal centers or advancing other plans to accommodate an expected increase in freight traffic.

Among railroads anticipating a bump in intermodal traffic after the bigger canal opens is Florida East Coast Railway L.L.C. (FEC), the only rail provider to south Florida’s ports. Based in Jacksonville, Fla., the 351-mile regional is working with PortMiami and Port Everglades to build on-dock rail facilities as part of their expansion programs, which FEC execs view as a big part of the railroad’s strategy to grow intermodal traffic. “By summer 2014, we’ll have the on-dock rail facility fully operational, which means that from PortMiami we can hit 70 percent of the American population in a matter of days,” says PortMiami Director Bill Johnson. “It will allow us to double stack containers directly to Jacksonville in under nine hours, and connect to Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) and CSX directly to the heartland of America.”

FEC is partnering with both Port Miami and Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) to build on-dock rail facilities to provide faster and more cost-effective service to intermodal customers. In addition, the Port of Miami is engaged in the FEC Rail Reconnection Project. The Project has four phases: (1) reconstruction of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) Port Lead, (2) rehabilitation of the bascule bridge that connects Port Miami and FEC, (3) the construction of an on-port rail facility, and (4) modifications to FEC’s Rail Yard to accommodate the increase in intermodal traffic. The rail reconnection project is actually part of a larger infrastructure investment program taking place at Port Miami. The other two projects are the Miami Access Tunnel and the 50-foot dredge.