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
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
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
"Nearly every customer is international - either buying things around
the world or exporting things," Doyle says. "Very few companies are
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
Lanigan also looks for steady business as orders arrive tailored to
"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."