The Port of Baltimore could once again become a contender for import cargo bound for the Midwest as a result of the decision by CSX to locate its new intermodal rail terminal near the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal.
The $90 million rail terminal at Mount Clare at the other end of the Howard Street Tunnel from Seagirt will give the port near-dock double-stack container rail service to the Midwest and put it on the same footing as the ports of New York/New jersey and Norfolk, which have taken over most of the market for discretionary cargo that Baltimore used to dominate in the 1970s.
“With this off-dock double-stack service, good rates, timely service and the third-largest consumer group in the country, we are back in the game,” said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
Baltimore, which used to advertise itself as the closest port to the Middle West with the cheapest rail rates, lost that advantage when a federal law was repealed that required railroads to charge freight rates according to the distance traveled. “Once that act was repealed, Baltimore, almost overnight, lost almost all of its discretionary cargo,” White said.
CSX plans to build the new rail ramp by the first quarter of 2015, when the Panama Canal’s big new locks are supposed to open, enabling transits by post-Panamax container ships with almost three times the capacity. Those ships will be able to call at Seagirt, where terminal operator Ports America Chesapeake has invested $100 million to extend the port’s 50-foot channel to a new fourth berth it completed this year with four super-post-Panamax cranes.
Once the new rail ramp at Mount Clare is completed, import containers unloaded from those ships will be loaded on single-stack trains at the existing on-dock CSX rail terminal at Seagirt that will run through the Howard Street Tunnel, which is too low to allow double-stacking, seven miles to the Mount Clare rail ramp.
“There they will load domestic containers on top of the import containers, and then the train will go out to the CSX rail ramp at North Baltimore, Ohio,” White said. “On the way back, they will load domestic containers from the West Coast on top for local consumption, which will be unloaded at the Mount Clare terminal, and export containers on the bottom will continue on to Seagirt for loading on outbound ships.”
Once the ramp is built, White expects that carriers will start bringing more discretionary import cargo from Asia into Baltimore, because the port already is the main gateway for the wealthy Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia corridor. “If you are a shipowner, you want to send the ship to the port where you can unload the most freight so you can start your stowback for going back to Asia or Europe,” he said.
Baltimore will only attract more discretionary cargo if CSX charges freight rates that are competitive with other East Coast gateways for discretionary cargo. “We don’t have influence over how they price it, but CSX assures us they will provide competitive rates for the North Atlantic ports, so the inland will be the same for New York, Baltimore and Norfolk,” White said.
The rail ramp is not a done deal yet, because the State of Maryland has to come up with close to $30 million for its share of the funding. White is confident the state will approve the funding, because Governor Martin O'Malley is a strong supporter of the project.