Moving America: The Rise of Intermodal Freight

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An Interview with Joni Casey

Joni Casey headshotThe Intermodal Association of North America (IANA) represents more than 1,000 freight stakeholders including railroads, steamship lines, motor carriers, ports, marine terminal operators and third-party logistics providers among many others. The association’s primary goal is to reflect the combined interests of all of these parties as it pertains to intermodalism – the transportation of freight by multiple modes – and to make intermodal work for the country and consumers. Recently, Joni Casey, CEO of IANA sat down to discuss the record growth of intermodal freight.

Q: What does intermodal transportation look like today versus the past?

A: Intermodal dates back to the 1780’s, when wooden boxes were loaded on barges then transferred to horse drawn wagons. In the early 1950’s railroads started offering a service to transport truck semi-trailers on trains, dubbed as “piggyback” service. By the late 1950’s, Malcolm McLean’s Sea-Land Service was created and initiated the use of metal containers to transport cargo on ships. Twenty-five years later, one of the biggest innovations in the industry’s history – the “double stacking” of containers on rail cars – has brought intermodal into the mainstream and has helped it grow to record levels today.

Q. Why have we seen the recent, significant growth in volume of intermodal freight transportation?

A: Intermodal freight volumes have increased over fifty percent since the year 2000, totaling 15.5 million shipments in 2013. Over the last four years, domestic container traffic has been the driver of overall growth. Factors contributing to this growth include increased congestion on our highways, higher fuel costs, truck driver shortages, increased regulation of motor carriers and improved rail service.

In addition, the creation of “intermodal rail corridors”— such as the Heartland Corridor, Crescent Corridor and National Gateway Corridor – have helped to fuel intermodal growth. These corridors are dedicated intermodal lanes that are facilitating shorter haul service. In the past, intermodal service via rail wasn’t deemed to be economical for shipments moving less than 1,000 miles. Railroads’ continued investment in infrastructure and facilities, including these corridors, has allowed that number to drop below 750 miles.

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Q: How do America’s freight railroads fit into the intermodal supply chain? What is their role and how do you see railroads rising to meet the increasing freight demand?

A: Railroads are the backbone of domestic intermodal transportation and connect ports to inland distribution points. America’s freight railroads have invested and continue to invest billions of dollars a year of their own money – not taxpayer money – in their intermodal networks infrastructure to increase capacity. Key investments that the railroads have made include: new and expanded cargo transfer facilities, new technologies that facilitate terminal throughput, raising clearances to accommodate double stack service, and creating the intermodal corridors mentioned previously.

For example, new automated gate processes that have been implemented by railroads have helped to increase the velocity of freight coming into and leaving intermodal terminals.

Q: How does the partnership that is created between different modes of transportation by intermodal – such as trucks, barges, and railroads – benefit businesses and consumers?

A: Intermodal by its nature is designed to combine the best parts of each mode to provide one of the most efficient and cost effective forms of freight transportation. It is well-known that rail intermodal is more fuel efficient and environmentally-friendly than trucks. One intermodal train can carry the equivalent amount of freight as several hundred trucks, using only 25% of the fuel. In addition, there is less handling involved with intermodal, helping to reduce cargo loss and damage, and increasing shipment security.

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