NY-NJ rail projects target fluidity

NY-NJ rail projects target fluidity

The Port of New York and New Jersey's ExpressRail system handled 645,760 containers in 2018, a 13.8 percent increase over 2017, according to port authority data. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

The Port of New York and New Jersey and Conrail have begun two new projects aimed at improving rail fluidity by providing rail car stage space, as the top US East Coast port works to boost its intermodal operations and its penetration into inland freight markets.

In November, the port authority and Conrail agreed to jointly fund a $3.8 million project to create 10,500 feet of track on which to store cars and build trains. The project, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, is located near the new $149 million rail terminal opened at GCT Bayonne in January and can also serve the port’s Elizabeth and Newark terminals. The additional 10,500 of track will be about the same amount as the length of working track at the GCT Terminal.

“It's a key location that will allow Conrail to block traffic and swap cars out in a very efficient fashion that will help our fluidity and staging,” Matt Masters, general manager for the port rail program for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said. “It gives them two 5,200 foot long tracks that they can put blocks of cars on and build trains [on].”

A second project to create an 18,000-foot double-track circuit, known as the Waverly Loop, secured approval and funding from the New Jersey Department of Transportation this month. Expected to be completed in 2020, the track will have enough staging space to store an entire train and will “greatly reduce congestion and delays,” Masters said. The additional space will enable progressive train moves out of the port on CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern lines that don’t require the time consuming process of moving the locomotive from one end of the train to the other.

The two projects will help meet the need for rail staging space that the Port Performance Council, a group of stakeholders that works to increase port efficiency, said last year would reach a “critical” level at the port in the future if it wasn’t addressed.

Port officials see discretionary rail cargo as a key driver for the port’s future and, given the port’s already sizable share of cargo going to and from the New York area, a promising market for growth. The port’s rail system, known as ExpressRail, handled 645,760 containers in 2018, a 13.8 percent increase over 2017, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). Rail lifts in January rose 8.8 percent compared with the same month in 2018, PANYNJ reported Monday. Masters said the port expects rail volumes to increase 8-9 percent for the full year in 2019.

Port officials attribute the rise in rail lifts in part to the growing number of container routes calling New York-New Jersey as the first port into the country, a status favored by shippers looking to get their cargo off the vessel and to its ultimate destination as early as possible. That has in turn boosted the need for rail cars.

The two new projects will together add more than 28,000 square feet of new track, most of it available for rail car storage and the creation of new trains. Much of the demand for staging space stems from the port’s imbalance of cargo, with two import boxes arriving for every export leaving, which creates a need for space in which to store a steady inflow of empty cars. The recent surge in import cargo volumes through New York-New Jersey, like other ports, increased that imbalance, further adding to demand for more rail cars. New York-New Jersey handled 14 percent more cargo in the final quarter of 2018 than in the 2017 period as shippers raced to bring in cargo from China before tariffs increased at the end of December.

The port has struggled in recent months with a shortage of empty rail cars across several terminals, and the situation worsened when the port saw a 20 percent increase in cargo in December, over the month in 2017. One official said trains were arriving several hundred feet shorter than needed.

Among the port’s terminals, the APM Terminals facility in Elizabeth, which experienced a 26 percent increase in cargo in the fourth quarter over the quarter before, has wrestled most notably with rail cargo and has been sending cargo by truck and barge to rail terminals outside the port. New York-New Jersey, like other ports, saw a surge in cargo as shippers sought to import goods from China before tariffs increased from 10 percent to 25 percent on Jan. 1. The increase has since been postponed.

The port is now working with CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern to bring more empty rail cars — and with greater consistency — to the port. Where the rail lines in the past sent additional cars at the port’s request, CSX now routinely puts several thousand feet of empty cars a day on loaded trains coming to the port, and NS sends one or two trains of empty cars, Masters said.

“Both railroads had been cooperating with us,” said Masters. “It’s hard for us to yell and scream at the railroad and say, ‘Hey, we need extra cars,” because they are going to say, 'Great, where are you going to put them?’”

Contact Hugh R. Morley at hugh.morley@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.