Like baseball, intermodal can be a game of inches.
The 107-inch tall opening of the standard domestic intermodal container may be fine for most shippers. But it is three inches shorter than the height of many over-the-road trailers. And the standard domestic container has notches extending from the roof where lift equipment grabs the box, posing another obstacle to easy loading.These differences mean that shippers sometimes must stack their pallets in a different manner, depending on whether the product is going to move by rail or road. Many also can not move as much product in a container as they can in a trailer.
But with thousands of excess domestic containers sitting unused, there isn't much likelihood the design of domestic containers will change any time soon, even though J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. uses a container with the 110-inch height clearance.
''Most shippers, given a choice, would prefer the 110-inch box,'' said Thomas Perdue, vice president of intermodal for C.H. Robinson Co., a third-party logistics company. ''But when it comes down to what is the real customer requirement, I believe for most shippers, the 107-inch door is adequate.
''There's a tremendous surplus of domestic containers,'' he added. ''I don't see investors queuing up very fast to invest in a whole new series of domestic containers.''
Even advocates of intermodal containers believe that the industry should be trying to move toward a container designed like Hunt's, which mirrors a standard over-the-road trailer on the inside.
''I understand how we're here. I just don't think that's where we should strive to be,'' said Charles Willmott, vice president of marketing and planning with equipment lessor Xtra Cos. in McLean, Va.
''As much as we all love intermodal, it's not the dominant standard of freight transportation in this country,'' said Mr. Willmott. ''In addition to trying to woo shippers to use something not first and foremost in their mind, and which is not as simple, now we're going to layer on a specialized piece of equipment that is less efficient than any truck at their loading dock today.''
While some shippers will reach a weight limit long before a trailer is full to the top, there are many shippers who will fill a trailer's volume, or cube it out, before they reach the weight limit.
''Freight is getting larger in volume, lighter in weight every day,'' said Mr. Willmott. ''If you're truly a cube-sensitive shipper, shipping cans, bottles, the way you can take advantage of intermodal is to reconfigure your load.''
It's not just empty cans that cube-out quickly. Frigidaire Co. will fill a trailer with ranges, refrigerators and freezers before they ever reach weight limits, said Mike Gregg, manager of its truckload program. He said the extra three inches of a trailer or a Hunt box allows him to add an extra row of product on the top of a trailer.
''We hope more carriers will go to 110 inches and make it easier for us,'' he said, adding that he expects most of the shorter trailers will be replaced with 110-inch units in a few years. As for a conversion of the domestic container fleet, he said, ''Probably not as quickly. I think it will happen eventually, though.''
The 110-inch container has its own problems. The loading equipment used with marine containers works just fine with the standard domestic containers. But the lack of insets at the top of the Hunt box required a totally different piece of lift equipment.
Hunt's clout led most terminal operators at intermodal yards to buy the loading equipment needed for the 110-inch box. Today there are 120 pieces of that equipment at 90 locations around the country. But it has been a gradual process to reach that penetration.
Not surprisingly, Hunt said a large part of its client base makes use of the extra inches their box provides. If other owners of containers, such as the equipment leasing companies, aren't interested in following, it doesn't bother Hunt.
''We can't haul all the freight anyway. We feel like there are enough customers who can use this high-cube equipment,'' said Paul Bergant, executive vice president of marketing for Hunt.
The trucker owns 20,000 of the 110-inch boxes, about 11,000 of which are 53-feet long, which is also longer than standard domestic containers. It will add another 2,000 53-foot long containers to its fleet this year.
''The intermodal world deserves what it gets,'' said Mr. Bergant. ''By us introducing this high-cube box, we bring incremental business to intermodalism.''