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Intermodal Transit: A Better Way To Ship

Industrial companies are finding intermodal transportation to be an efficient, cost-saving approach that enhances the supply chain process.

Apr/May 10
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Expedited Services
Intermodal carriers offer expedited service to manufacturers and retailers that closely monitor containers, ensuring they continue to move and letting customers know where they are at any time.

"Intermodal rail service has become much more reliable and efficient in recent years," Lanigan says. "We provide a combination of value and environmental friendliness."

BNSF has boosted time-sensitive inventory replenishment by reducing transit schedules on 60 percent of its domestic intermodal premium container traffic, and adding 16 more days of service.

"These changes are a direct result of feedback from our domestic carrier customers on what they need to attract more over-the-road freight to a truck-rail intermodal solution," says George Duggan, BNSF vice president of domestic intermodal.

One change includes reducing transit time by seven to 10 hours on its premier transcontinental route between Los Angeles/San Bernardino and Chicago, giving customers morning availability and permitting same-day delivery. Industry sources call Chicago the freight capital of the nation.

BNSF also reduced transit time between Memphis and Los Angeles by four to six hours, and increased Houston inbound and day-of-the-week frequencies. These enhancements supplement the 77 service changes BNSF made to its domestic intermodal service in 2009, reducing overall transit schedules by 300 hours and adding 32 days of additional frequency. BNSF's fastest intermodal service moves 760 miles a day - 200 miles more than a single-driver truck.

Railroads have spent billions to upgrade their intermodal facilities over the past 10 years, Feemster says. That includes double- and triple-tracking routes that allow trains to run in both directions simultaneously. Additionally, companies are enlarging tunnels to permit double-stack trains to pass.

"Double- and triple-tracking improves average train speeds and reduces average dwell time, the time it takes to stop the train and start it moving again," Feemster says.

As for imports, the majority comes from Asia through all U.S. ports.

"But more are coming by water into Gulf and Eastern ports, taking away from Western ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle," Feemster says. "That's because 77 percent of the U.S. population lives east of Texas," he claims.

On the inbound side, Doyle says auto manufacturers and retailers are the biggest users. For exports, it's agricultural companies transporting grain, soybeans, and other commodities.

Which companies are the biggest intermodal users? The auto industry uses a lot of supplier parts that are transported intermodally, Feemster says. But Lanigan and Doyle say consumer products companies are the top users.

"Nearly every customer is international - either buying things around the world or exporting things," Doyle says. "Very few companies are self-contained."

A Bullish Outlook
Sources are optimistic about the intermodal outlook through 2010.

"There's a replenishment cycle going on as inventories drawn down need to be replaced, so we're hopeful that will grow intermodal volume," says Thomas Malloy, vice president of member services and communications at the IANA.

Lanigan also looks for steady business as orders arrive tailored to customer needs.

"The outlook is very robust," Feemster says. "Intermodal is the second-lowest-cost transportation - the first is water - combining water and rail to provide the best cost scenario for getting products to their major markets."

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