The U.S. Maritime Administration’s plan to construct marine highways won’t just take pressure off roads. The agency’s April 8 final regulation also spells out a role for “car floats” that could run parts of trains on the nation’s harbors and rivers, easing pressure on rail links around major cities.
The Marine Highway Program is aimed at putting wheeled vehicles on barges, ferries or other water vessels for part of their journey, bypassing congested land routes where possible.
Until now, Marad had focused just on truck trailers and intermodal containers, part of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s view of using various means to “get trucks off the highway.” Despite pleas by some cargo officials to include bulk or breakbulk operations, Marad kept the program aimed at vehicles on wheels.
The program now will include railcar-hauling ferries or car floats, vessels equipped with track sections to hold the railcars, steel wheels on tracks. Marad will count the ferries as roll-on, roll-off vessels.
Railcars have ridden on barges long before the Interstate Highway System or even self-powered trucks. Car floats were used at least as early as the U.S. Civil War.
Even in the modern era, hundreds of U.S. car floats took railcars on waterway shortcuts that could potentially save days of travel across large harbor areas such as New York, compared with shuttling a few cars painstakingly between various railyards to get around that area. Train companies operated the car floats, working with ports and tugs. And Central Gulf Railway, a subsidiary of International Shipholding, moves about 16,000 railcars a year between connecting railroads at the ports of Mobile, Ala., and Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, across the Gulf of Mexico.
The New York and other similar operations, however, dwindled over time, with the rise of the trucking industry fueled by interstate funding. But the same landside congestion that makes ferries so appealing to float containers around large consumer centers could make even more sense for short-distance railcar hauls.
In 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bought full interest in New York New Jersey Rail from Mid-Atlantic New England Rail. NYNJ Rail holds a federal “certificate of convenience and necessity,” which allows it to carry freight across the harbor using float bridges located in Jersey City, N.J., and Brooklyn, N.Y.
It is the only car float in that area.
While it’s unlikely marine shipments of railcars would ever extend as far as some of the planned container corridors, sending some car floats across harbors or between ports on opposite sides of a river could become appealing again. Marad’s backing may be just a test, or the start of a new era in very-short-sea rail hauls.
Contact John D. Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.