Moving oversize freight strains nation’s infrastructure

Moving oversize freight strains nation’s infrastructure

Wind energy projects are driving a level of rail-truck cooperation that’s rare between the over-the-road trucking and intermodal rail industries. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

NEW ORLEANS — Shipper and carriers of oversize, overweight freight have a problem: big cargoes just keep getting bigger and heavier. Whether wind turbines or massive power transformers, it takes an increasing amount of collaboration between modes, companies, and state and local governments to get oversize projects from ports to inland destinations.

“Manufacturers want to make things larger all the time, and this puts a strain on our infrastructure,” Marvin Gross, business development manager at heavy-haul trucking company Miller Transfer, said during a panel discussion at the JOC Breakbulk & Project Cargo Conference here Tuesday. Worn-out bridges won’t take those heavy weights, he said.

“I operate in South Carolina, and in Charleston you can’t get anywhere without crossing 10 bridges, so you have to adapt,” Gross said. That means finding alternate routes, putting loads on rail or barge, and sometimes building new infrastructure. Miller Transfer had to use barge transport and build a bridge to move an overweight load from Savannah to Augusta, Georgia.

The problem is similar in Louisiana, said Courtney Richard, president of Anchor36 Trucking and Logistics, a steel and project cargo hauler based in New Orleans. “The state of Louisiana is closing bridges every week.” It’s a struggle, she said, to keep up with which routes are open and which are not. Increasingly, heavy-haul truckers are turning to railroads for help.

Collaboration essential

The need for greater collaboration in a market that is increasingly strapped for resources and capacity was a theme that resonated throughout the conference. “Truck and rail are both essential for a successful wind [power] market,” said David Ferebee, vice president of sales and marketing for Lone Star Transportation, a Daseke heavy-haul trucking company.

“Trucks can’t do it all; there’s not enough truck capacity to meet the demand,” Ferebee told a separate panel on wind-blown energy projects. Even on out-of-gauge rail, “the size of wind tower components is pushing the limits,” he said. “Years ago, we had 24-meter blades, but now we’ve got 50-meter blades. Everytime we figure out how to move it, they make it bigger.”

That’s driving a level of rail-truck cooperation that’s rare between the over-the-road trucking and intermodal rail industries. “Our intermodal partners are our best problem solvers,” Richard said. But planning a multimodal oversize project cargo move is far from simple. “It’s really hard to ship by rail,” said Iris Thornton, senior manager of specialized services for CN Supply Chain.

Railroads moving specialized cargo have their own challenges, including scheduling, loading, and unloading oversize shipments. “There are constraints within the network,” she said. CN has to work closely with other railroads, trucking partners, and local jurisdictions to complete specialized moves, she said. One advantage, the railroad has assets on the ground.

“We will have offices and yards in remote locations,” Thornton said. “We’ve been able to establish a presence.” That means personnel and resources are on hand to manage portions of a heavy-haul move that a trucking company alone wouldn’t have access to. But the best efforts of railroads and truckers won’t make up for a shipper’s failure to plan for contingencies.

“Too often, we see project owners throwing problems at freight forwarders to solve when it’s already too late,” Thornton said. Success also depends on cooperation with state and local authorities that issue permits allowing oversize, overweight trucks to take certain routes. The process of obtaining state permits for oversize/overweight loads has long been a headache.

“We find it increasingly difficult to get permits” for loads traversing several states, said Jurgen Huygh, head of outbound logistics and business control for CG Power Systems, a global manufacturer of industrial electrical products, including transformers. Project sites in North America “are more and more remote,” he said, and therefore difficult to reach.

Rail to the rescue

Often, rail is the best solution, he said, but rail won’t get a load all the way to its destination. And as the weight of transformers increases, CG Power Systems has had to be innovative. “We’ve used new technology to lower the weight of the trailers, so they can handle the increased weight of the transformers. We need to see more innovation in every area of project cargo.”

Recent advances have made the process of obtaining state permits easier, although work remains to be done, said Steven Todd, vice president of the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association (SC&RA). “Thirty-seven states are up and running, or soon will be, with an automated permitting system” that dramatically reduces the time needed to obtain permits, he said.

The SC&RA and the American Trucking Associations, of which it is an affiliate, are promoting a rider to legislation in Congress that would provide $2 million in federal grant money to states to automate permitting systems, he said. Even so, getting permits from counties and municipalities remains an issue. “Local permitting is becoming our greatest challenge,” Todd said.

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.