Judging from the number of calls and inquiries I receive from analysts and experts, intermodal is no longer a stranger to transportation cognoscenti. It’s an essential component of North American railroad volume and the underlying foundation of the global liner shipping business.
Looking ahead, I see the intermodal community continually responding and recalibrating to changes originating from its diversity of stakeholders. Specifically, additional changes can be anticipated in the traditional boundaries observed by public- and private-sector entities as illustrated by the following two examples.
Intermodal transportation succeeds when it offers a compelling value proposition. This evaluation increasingly is conducted against a constantly moving baseline — traditionally the price of fuel. This is changing, however. The private sector is increasingly reluctant to reinvest in traditional motor carrier assets — perhaps driven by the diminishing pool of people willing to pursue or continue the truck driver lifestyle. In addition, the public sector is changing the truckload supply curve through safety and environmental initiatives. These ongoing challenges and uncertainties impose a hidden cost on all stakeholders because optimal solutions are postponed and bets are hedged until the churn in federal rules is determined with finality.
The rail intermodal business derives more than half its volume from marine containers. Although imports may drive the headlines, this transportation lifeline also supports significant export growth. For intermodal to “look like truck” it needs a chassis. Again, public and private forces are transforming this essential industry component.
Public-sector roadability initiatives have put intermodal equipment in play. On the private side, while ocean carriers seek to change chassis provisioning models, railroads and truckers consider the impact on service and economics. Again uncertainty imposes costs — as systems are modified to handle intermediate solutions that may not be applicable or optimal for the future.