Chicago intermodal rail delays ‘unprecedented’ since January

Chicago intermodal rail delays ‘unprecedented’ since January

Chicago is a critical node in intermodal rail supply chains because of its geographical location.

The congestion in Chicago is so bad some drayage providers are refusing to take on new customers. Photo credit: Shutterstock


Major delays are plaguing shippers and logistics providers in Chicago because of a perfect storm of winter weather, intermodal rail yard delays, chassis shortages, and tighter truck capacity exacerbated by the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate.

Although not limited to Chicago, the top US freight hub has been cited for the most severe gridlock and so much drayage demand that some motor carriers will not accept new customers until April.

Multiple trucking executives told JOC.com that they are charging accessorial fees on some hauls and imposing $75 to $150 detention penalties after one hour sitting at an intermodal rail yard.

“This is the most prolonged and sustained period of tightness in Chicago that I’ve ever seen, it’s unprecedented. But I think it may be the new normal,” said Phil Shook, director of intermodal at C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc.

“It is about as bad as we’ve ever seen it historically, outside of weather emergencies like blizzards,” said Clint Dvorak, managing director, Global North America at MIQ Logistics, which recently issued an alert to shippers about the delays.

Jason Hilsenbeck, president of Drayage.com, said that clicks on his website from the Chicago metropolitan area have surged since the beginning of the year. Over the last 60 days, his intermodal directory website generated more than 90,000 clicks. Per day, the average hovers between 2,000 and 3,000, indicating a significant interest to search his online directory of drayage providers serving Chicago.

“When we had the labor problems in Los Angeles and Long Beach a few years ago, we started to hit 70,000 or 80,000 clicks over 60 days, but I’ve never seen this in Chicago except after blizzards,” Hilsenbeck said.

Trucking, logistics execs voice frustration

Trucking and logistics executives have expressed frustration at intermodal rail yard operations since the beginning of the year, worried the slowdown will further alienate the driver pool.

Canadian National Railway in Harvey, Illinois, and Union Pacific Railroad’s four Chicago-area terminals, to a lesser extent, were identified as having multi-hour turn times in some cases, according to the sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a statement, CN blamed the delays on the weather, driver shortages, and ELDs.

“We continue to work with our supply chain partners to manage traffic flows and alleviate the delays. We are working to secure more driver power in the Chicago area to increase terminal fluidity and have encouraged carters to schedule appointments at off hours such as nights and weekends,” the railway wrote.

UP said a broken wheel on a train temporarily caused bottlenecks through Chicago but the situation has since been resolved.

These delays are happening as truckers contemplate whether to leave the industry ahead of the hard enforcement date of ELDs on April 1. Owner-operators fed up with the Chicago dray market may consider this the right time for a change.

“I would say 50 percent of the drivers or more are considering flipping to [over-the-road] to avoid the ramps. Owner-operators just get fed up and no longer want to do rail freight because of the time wasted at ramps. It’s a vicious circle,” said Susan Keldani, vice president of On Track Transportation in Illinois.

“You spend three hours getting the chassis and the container and when you terminate it’s another two hours. It’s leaving very little time for drivers,” added Kevin Lhotak, president of Reliable Transportation.

That is when there are even chassis available to take the container, which is not a certainty right now.

Tracy Davis, president of Acme Transportation Company, said truckers often arrive at rail yards only to discover no available chassis or a small number of defective units.

“There may be 10 chassis one day but when you go to pick it up and the person says it’s reserved or the chassis are red-tagged and cannot go out on the road,” Davis said.

Mediterranean Shipping Co. sent a warning notice in early February to customers urging customers to promptly return equipment to alleviate the shortage.

“If there is not a drastic decrease in long dwelling equipment on the street in the coming days, we will have no choice but to enforce a ‘No Chassis in, No Chassis out’ policy at the rails and CYs [container yards] in order to release any more equipment for loading,” the notice said.

Consolidated Chassis Management pegged the utilization rate at 63 percent for the Chicago-Ohio Valley Consolidated Chassis Pool, including an ample supply near the CN Harvey terminal.

TRAC Intermodal and Direct ChassisLink Inc. were not available for comment.

Contact Ari Ashe at Ari.Ashe@ihsmarkit.com.