Fraying Dray

Fraying Dray

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Shippers with freight delayed at intermodal facilities are howling with pain but the intermodal industry itself is the real victim this summer.

That''s because this is supposed to be the year intermodalism, as a shipping practice and as an industry, takes off with industrial America.

It is supposed to be the year shippers find the true benefits of blending modal capabilities into a seamless stream of inventory management on the move, when an uneasy truce between trucks and trains flowers into a vision for the future, setting the stage for a unified transportation system that would not only lead commerce but make it possible.

A unified transportation system? Haggling on Capitol Hill over the highway bill doesn''t leave us much encouragement for that.

And in the nation''s freight terminals, 2004 has been a year of heavy backlogs at Union Pacific facilities, growing delays at other sites, tension-raising labor strife at ports on both sides of the country and, finally, impasse at the industry''s leadership level.

It''s easy to view the operational problems as isolated events, as issues driven by unique circumstances that are exacerbated by the sudden growth in traffic in the nation''s improving economy. It''s an odd industry, however, that views an influx of urgent business as a problem.

But those brimming containers coming into the West Coast are only shedding light on what surely has been a longstanding inefficiency at facilities where ports, rails and trucks meet. It is inefficiency that seems to have been hidden behind the easier operations made possible by a slower economy and more lackluster freight volume.

And it is inefficiency that should have been solved in earlier years when easier volumes gave time for longer-term solutions to issues such as so-called roadability.

Instead, a possible compromise on the issue of responsibility and liability for maintenance of intermodal chassis seems farther away than ever. The American Trucking Associations recently pulled out of a coalition that included maritime and rail interests that was seeking an end to that troublesome and divisive issue.

How divisive? The trucking group now appears closer to the Teamsters union and the longshoremen''s unions, groups seeking legislative action on chassis, than to other companies and associations in the freight industry.

In announcing the pullout, the ATA took full aim at steamship lines, saying they foster the very congestion that is backing up ports, demand "one-sided contracts" for use of intermodal facilities and equipment and they generally abuse relationships with independent truckers who work the sites.

The trailers, or chassis, are the heart of the issue and they should be the heart of the solution.

Opponents of legislative mandates say they fear rapid escalation of the costs of maintaining and repairing the equipment - an extra $2 billion, by some estimates. That''s hard to buy - a trailer should be maintained and kept in good repair in any case, so to us the argument looks to be over who should pay for the maintenance, not whether the costs of maintenance will rise.

Those who argue that it will cost more to maintain the equipment are really talking about the burden of the maintenance.

But for truckers and shippers, having well-maintained equipment on hand would mean great efficiency gains through smoother, more rapid trips through container facilities.

The trucking industry is concerned with the cost burden as well, of course, and faces an uphill battle in getting Congress to intrude on an internecine transportation debate. But intermodal interests shouldn''t cheer too loudly if they win - so far this year, they''re already the losers.