Intermodal rail service from West Coast ports involves much more than placing a marine container on a train in Los Angeles or Seattle and lifting it off at an inland rail ramp. Intermodal rail is a finely tuned system that includes on- and near-dock rail transfer facilities, expedited double-stack rail services and integrated intermodal logistics hubs at inland destinations.
This capital- and service-intensive system has helped West Coast ports dominate the Asia-to-U.S. trade, with a 72.5 percent share of U.S. imports from Northeast Asia. Intermodal rail is expected to keep the West Coast as the primary gateway for the Asia-U.S. trade even after the Panama Canal expansion project is completed in two years.
An estimated 64 percent of containerized imports in Los Angeles-Long Beach move by rail intact or after being transloaded into 53-foot domestic containers. More than 70 percent of containerized imports at Seattle-Tacoma move inland by rail.
Intermodal rail from the West Coast got another boost on March 5 when BNSF Railway and Maersk Line launched their joint Flagship service that offers day-definite delivery of Asian imports to Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, Houston and CSX’s Northwest Ohio rail hub.
Vessels capable of carrying 5,200 to 8,500 20-foot container units call at the APM terminal in Los Angeles. The containers are transferred to BNSF trains at the on-dock railyard. The double-stack trains move nonstop to the five inland destinations with total transit times from Asia ranging from 18 to 22 days. Today’s supply chains depend upon reliable delivery times, and the Flagship’s day-definite deliveries will guarantee that reliability, said Timothy O’Connell, Maersk’s director of marketing for North America.
The railroads are investing heavily in track, equipment, lift and inland hub capacity. Union Pacific Railroad this year will invest $3.6 billion systemwide, with a significant portion benefiting intermodal rail services from the West Coast, said Eric Butler, executive vice president of marketing and sales.
UP, for example, will spend $190 million on its flyover project at the Colton Crossing in Southern California. UP, BNSF and commuter train tracks cross each other at grade at the 100-year-old crossing, with about 80 percent of the trains forced to stop. The flyover will raise UP’s tracks above the others, eliminating the stops and reducing transit times by 45 minutes to an hour, Butler said.
BNSF’s $3.9 billion capital investment program this year includes $2.1 billion for the core network and related assets, $1.1 billion for locomotive, freight car and other equipment acquisitions and $300 million for safety-related positive train control, spokeswoman Krista York-Woolley said.
Although UP and BNSF have sufficient power and rolling stock to handle existing freight traffic, they are investing in modern equipment to meet future demand and reduce harmful diesel emissions.
Both railroads plan to expand their near-dock lift capacity in Los Angeles-Long Beach. UP is awaiting release of the draft environmental impact report for the $400 million expansion of its Intermodal Container Transfer Facility 4.5 miles from the harbor. BNSF is awaiting approval of the EIR for construction of its Southern California International Gateway. The SCIG will have annual capacity of 1.5 million lifts.
Public-private partnerships are engaged in grade-separation projects at the major West Coast gateways to expedite the movement of freight trains while reducing their impact on vehicular mobility in the nearby communities. The $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor in Southern California opened in 2002 and is considered the poster child for allowing rail operations to coexist with neighboring communities.
Individual grade-separation projects are being built along the Alameda Corridor East, which covers 70 miles of track in the San Gabriel Valley.
Similarly, public-private partnerships have invested more than $600 million in the FAST corridor in Washington state to expedite the flow of trains from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. About two-thirds of the projects have been completed.
BNSF and UP are spending billions of dollars to double track their mainline routes from Southern California. BNSF is almost done double-tracking its Transcon route to Chicago, and UP this year will have double-tracked 70 percent of its Sunset corridor to El Paso, Texas.
The western railroads are leaders in establishing integrated intermodal logistics hubs at inland destinations. These logistics parks have direct rail service from the West Coast, and inland surrounding the rail facilities, retailers, importers and third-party logistics providers establish distribution centers to serve the region.
Both railroads have established logistics parks at key inland hubs such as Chicago and Dallas, and are developing other locations. BNSF recently completed a $200 million expansion of its Memphis intermodal facility. BNSF is building a logistics park in Kansas City with an initial capacity of 500,000 units that can be expanded to 1.5 million units, York-Woolley said.
UP and BNSF are continually expanding their expedited international and domestic services from the West Coast to inland destinations as they prepare for completion of the Panama Canal expansion project by early 2015. BNSF offers expedited services to key destinations such as Chicago, Kansas City and Atlanta. UP this past year initiated 28 new domestic and international services.
Although the expanded Panama Canal could cause a diversion of Asian imports to East Coast ports, the western railroads believe the improvements they are putting into effect will prevent any significant loss of market share.