TUCSON, Ariz. — Intermodal service delays at Union Pacific Railway and CSX Transportation will end in roughly two to four weeks following a harsh winter that wrecked havoc on the railroads’ networks, rail representatives said at a conference on April 10.
UP increased its intermodal business in the first quarter even though the severest winter in decades prevented it from handling even more available freight, said Kari Kirchhoefer, president of Streamline, a UP subsidiary that provides door-to-door intermodal service.
“The network is not back completely running normally, but we are in much better shape,” said Tami Parsons, director of intermodal sales at CSX, at a Transportation Intermediaries Association conference in Tucson, Ariz., this week.
Poor rail service in the first 10 to 11 weeks of this year spurred shippers to shift about 150,000 loads from the rails to truck, Thomas Albrecht, managing director of BB&T Capital Market’s transportation group, said in an April 3 research note. He said the loads, which represent about 1 percent or less of for-hire dry van loads, were concentrated in certain markets, namely Chicago, New York/New Jersey, Ohio, Atlanta and Charlotte.
The modal shift from rail to truck “was not just from intermodal loads going back on the highway, but from other rail commodities like sugar, potatoes, corn syrup, sweeteners, grains to small bakeries, etc.,” Albrecht said. “And, on top of that, other loads not counted in container loads (and) not counted in container intermodal numbers were pushed back to the highway including users of (trailer-on-flatcar) trains, both parcel and temperature-controlled services.”
The persistent cold made it hard for the rail industry to “reset,” or make up for delays, said Sam Niness, assistant vice president and general manager of Thoroughbred Direct Intermodal Services, a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern Railway. The weather, which had the biggest negative impact in Chicago, the nation’s largest rail freight hub, hurt the rail industry’s operations in various ways. Norfolk Southern’s more efficient, environmentally friendly locomotives, for example, are also more sensitive to weather. The railroad also had to cut intermodal train lengths from 10,000 feet to 6,000 feet because cold weather puts limits on trains’ air braking systems.
“If any of you tried intermodal in the first quarter, I am so sorry,” Niness said.
As of April 5, U.S. intermodal traffic so far this year was up 4.4 percent year-over-year, according to the Association of American Railroads. Only in the last four weeks has traffic consistently increased on a double-digit basis, suggesting railroads are gaining momentum in moving delayed shipments.