The Next Intermodal Innovation

The Next Intermodal Innovation

If you attend the Intermodal Association of North America convention in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this week, you’re likely to hear plenty about current intermodal affairs. What you’re not likely to hear about is game-changing innovation.

Let me make a nomination for intermodal’s “next big thing,” a retroactive nomination if you will.

My vote would be for the “boxcar.” In some ways, the “boxcar” as the next innovative intermodal vehicle makes perfect sense. Conveyance vehicles have been getting bigger over the last 40 years or so, on the rail and the highway. Railcar weights have standardized at 286,000 pounds, and trailer lengths have grown in stages from 35 feet to 53 feet over that period. For any number of reasons, trailers aren’t going to get any longer (although there’s a substantial argument to be made about longer-combination vehicles).

A single 53-foot trailer or container has about 3,500 cubic feet of space, while a 72-foot boxcar contains more than 7,000 cubic feet. Perhaps the more important advantage for the boxcar is weight, however. At 286,000 pounds total, using 95,000 pounds as the tare weight of the car, the net weight of the freight hauled would be 191,000 pounds — more than four times today’s normal maximum weight for the freight hauled in a trailer. This means a single boxcar could haul four trailerloads of the right kind of commodity.

If you’re really interested in getting trucks off the road, particularly heavier trucks that we know cause a disproportionate amount of road surface damage, then use a boxcar.

Of course, it’s not that easy. You’re clearly going to have to pick up and deliver the freight in a truck, so you’ll need a cross-dock facility, and that creates two additional handlings — and some real complications.

I would say such facilities exist today (how many empty warehouses with boxcar doors currently sit on rail sidings?). These boxcars must be “decked” with the ability to load two levels of freight in each boxcar. The existing boxcar fleet has 138 inches of loadable inside height, so with decking at the midway point, you get to load two levels of 60-inch pallets.

Because, by definition, you’re focused on dense freight, this shouldn’t be much of an issue. It plays into the hand of today’s logistics managers who are redesigning packaging to fit more units into a single space. Freight transportation companies already are doing this with perishables, including fresh fruit and vegetables, with negligible damage.

Railroads have proved they can run express trains between two points at an average of 30 miles per hour. A transcontinental 3,000-mile rail haul would take 100 hours, or four days. A day for pickup and delivery and a day for unloading give you a seven-day transcontinental transit, which is competitive with today’s intermodal services.

The final issue is price. These cars will get much better utilization than current cars and, in fact, better utilization than today’s stack-car fleet (the double-stack cars are not always run in long-haul dedicated trains). If we take today’s economics involving double-stack cars, where you move two boxes on one platform or four and apply it to this example of four trailers equaling one, what do you get? There are additional expenses in handling, but at four-to-one, there are also significant economies.

Think of the utilization of the current boxcar fleet, much of which is still rusting in storage. Think about the 80-foot automobile boxcars, which have the same type of weight restrictions and already are constructed for high-speed service. There would be an investment in refurbishment involved, but that should be minimal relative to new construction.

Finally, if you’re a regulator, you may still have a problem with longer-combination vehicles because highways are built and engineered for vehicles of much smaller length. However, “balloon freight” (low-density cargo, that is) doesn’t work in this boxcar world; at two truckloads to one boxcar, the economics become negligible. If we had a real alternative for heavy freight and didn’t have to substantially increase the weight limitation for LCVs, a case could be made for allowing greater use of the doubles and triples on the road.

A close look at this type of service suggests it’s not nearly as radical in 2010 as the double-stack concept was in 1975.

Tom Finkbiner is senior chairman for the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver and executive vice president of Railex. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of those organizations. He can be contacted at tfinkbiner52@tampabay.rr.com.