Virginia port service shuffle promises faster rail flow

Virginia port service shuffle promises faster rail flow

The Port of Virginia will shift more weekly services into Virginia International Gateway with the new rail yard (upper right) now complete. Photo credit: Virginia Port Authority.

The Port of Virginia hopes to provide faster transit times to cargo owners by routing more containers into a newly renovated intermodal yard.

The port will reshuffle which terminals each vessel calls on based on the alliances between ocean carrier and either CSX Transportation or Norfolk Southern Railway, which should result in fewer time-consuming drays between terminals. 

It could also propel the Port of Virginia toward its goal of moving 40 percent of containers inland via rail. The number has fluctuated between 34 and 37 percent in the last few years. 

The port has three container terminals — Virginia International Gateway (VIG), Norfolk Intermodal Terminals (NIT), and Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT). NIT provides on-dock rail only to Norfolk Southern. PMT provides limited CSX on-dock rail and none to NS. VIG, recently expanded to build 10,000-foot trains, serves both CSX and NS. Thirteen weekly services discharge in NIT, 10 in VIG, and four in PMT, the Virginia Port Authority said. 

Some vessel strings were moved out of VIG during construction, which began in 2017. The result was that containers were trucked between terminals to be loaded onto a train, a time-consuming dray. With the VIG project complete, the port will now reshuffle the strings to increase terminal flow.

“One of the advantages of shifting these vessels to more modern terminals is to eliminate all the unnecessary drayage and do it more seamlessly on dock,” said Tom Capozzi, VPA’s chief sales officer.

The most important consideration, he said, is honoring the alliances between ocean carriers and railroads. Carriers aligned with CSX, for example, should be going into VIG rather than NIT.

Recent shifts of vessel calls

Within the last month, the 2M Alliance’s TP-12 Asian service through the Panama Canal was moved from VIG to NIT because it doesn't have much rail freight. 

The Indamex (India America Express) service, a CMA CGM, Ocean Network Express (ONE), OOCL, and Hapag-Lloyd service, was shifted from NIT to VIG because the string has a mixture of CSX and NS-bound cargo. Previously, the NS-bound containers would stay at NIT and the CSX boxes would be trucked to VIG. Now, all the containers can remain within VIG.

The East Coast-South America service, operated by Mediterranean Shipping Co., was moved from PMT to VIG because MSC is aligned with CSX. Previously, the MSC containers bound for Chicago would remain in PMT, but all other destinations would require a dray to a CSX facility in Portsmouth. Now, all the containers can remain within VIG.

In both cases, eliminating the dray should result in quicker transfers from vessel to train. 

Future plans to shift

The long-term plan includes moving some of the four PMT weekly strings into NIT or VIG once the NIT expansion project is complete in late 2020. 

Although no decisions have been made, Capozzi said 2M’s ATL-2 string currently calling PMT would be a prime candidate to shift to VIG because the vessels are between 7,500 and 9,000 TEU and there are a lot of CSX rail-bound containers on the vessels. 

The vision for PMT is combination roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro), breakbulk, and container terminal. Strings, such as Atlantic Container Lines, with a mixture of different cargo will remain in PMT. Strings with smaller vessels, such as 2M’s SAE service (less than 2,000 TEU), will likely remain at PMT.

“We have made the changes we’ll make for this peak season. But as phases of the NIT project are completed, we will have additional capacity and look at which services are the best to move,” Capozzi said. “Our goal is to have as many containers as possible using on-dock rail, eliminating as many unnecessary drays as possible.”

The goal is to always keep rail alliances in mind when making these shifts, but it’s not possible to completely avoid situations where CSX containers arrive in NIT and have to be trucked to VIG.

“When the berth a vessel needs isn’t available in VIG and we send it over to NIT, it could be an ocean carrier aligned with CSX,” Capozzi said.

There are also alliances, such as the OCEAN Alliance, in which some members are aligned with NS and others with CSX, so a vessel could have a mixture of containers going to each railroad. Capozzi said it may not always be possible to route vessels into VIG, so drayage between terminals will never be completely eliminated.

Limiting the number of drays, though, should provide better rail connections, providing beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) shorter dwell times and faster service inland.

Contact Ari Ashe at ari.ashe@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @arijashe.