On April 26, 1956, an old bucket of bolts called the Ideal X set sail from Port Elizabeth, N.J., to Houston and began a transportation revolution that has transformed the world's economy.
Later this month, some 43 years after it began, the heroes of this revolution will gather to record how transportation leaders in the private sector and the federal government changed the way things were done.
The revolution goes by a bit of jargon: "intermodalism." On the surface, it seems to be a simple concept. Take a box, roughly the size of a truck trailer, and outfit it to be used on any form of transportation--ships, railroad flatcars, truck chassis, even cargo airplanes.
When pioneer Malcolm McLean's Ideal X set sail with a load of these cargo containers, however, the concept was viewed with suspicion. World shipping companies had become comfortable with the old ways, loading and unloading cargo laboriously with cranes. They had no incentive to invest in new equipment, especially given that most rates were set by shipping cartels.
Longshoremen were livid. A container required fewer able-bodied men to load and unload. There were strikes and protests.
But in the end, because of a few dozen people of vision--including a few in the U.S. government--and the government deregulation of rail, trucking and air transport, the concept now dominates freight transportation.
The new intermodal shipping boom made Asian factories economically feasible, leading Texas Instruments to begin the trend of electronics manufacturing in Asia. In 1970, it took 50 days to get a shipment from Hong Kong to New York. Intermodalism dropped that time dramatically, and today, in conjunction with fast cross-country container trains, the same shipment takes 17 days.
"I call it the 'big bang,' " said Theodore Prince, a former railroader and shipping line official who now is senior vice president of the electronics firm Klein-Schmitt Inc. in Richmond. "Without intermodalism, you don't have the world economy as it is today."
Some of the names of the pioneers have familiar names, such as J.B. Hunt, whose name is on the side of hundreds of trucks. Others are unfamiliar, such as David J. DeBoer, now a freight car manufacturing executive who worked for years at the Federal Railroad Administration to persuade railroads to adopt intermodalism.
Many of these pioneers will travel to Aspen, Colo., July 27-29 for the Intermodal Transportation Institute's "Intermodal Founding Fathers of North America Conference." The institute is part of the University of Denver and is partially funded by the federal government.
The gathering is more than just a moment of nostalgia. Prince said the intermodal revolution happened so fast that little has been written about it. In fact, the fledgling institute discovered that not one textbook has been written, and much of the historical documentation has been destroyed.
Therefore, the gathering is the beginning of a five-year oral history project to preserve knowledge that was often shared only in the nearest bar. Said Prince: "The only thing written on paper was on cocktail napkins, and nobody saved them."
MINOR VIOLATIONS: The Federal Aviation Administration has just announced a new "streamlined" process for its inspectors to deal with minor pilot, maintenance and other violations, effective Aug. 30. Under current rules, all violations must go through a complicated administrative action process, often including letters of investigation and extensive files.
According to a FAA news release, this is the new process: "The inspector will discuss the problem with the alleged violator, fill out a data entry form with all pertinent information, return to the office to check the person's history, enter the information in a database, and mail an automated warning notice to the individual. The individual would still have an opportunity to provide additional information for the FAA's consideration."
That may sound just as complicated, but it is supposed to cut the process from 75 days to one or two days.
BUMPER TO BUMPER: So you thought roads and airports were getting crowded? The General Accounting Office says you ain't seen nothing yet.
In a report, "Surface Transportation: Moving Into the 21st Century," the GAO points out:
* U.S. population is expected to increase by 60 million through 2020, resulting in 60 million to 70 million more vehicles on the roads.
* By 2005, the number of Americans in their fifties will increase by 50 percent, adding different travel patterns and needs for transportation.