Rail Friendly

Rail Friendly

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

The Port of New Orleans and the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad plan to turn an empty intermodal ramp into the anchor for a new rail shuttle service that will carry containers and trailers between the port and Class 1 intermodal ramps.

The service is meant to help offset a projected increase in truck drayage traffic that will be moving through the port once its new $100 million Napoleon Avenue container terminal opens in August. The port hopes a "steel wheel shuttle" will replace a portion of the drayage requirements in and out of the terminal by linking outlying intermodal ramps by rail instead of by truck.

"When business starts to pick up here, it''s going to increase the amount of truck traffic on truck routes moving into the terminal by 70 percent," said Steven Jaeger, operations senior manager for the Port of New Orleans. "When the new container terminal goes up, we have concerns about how fluid the moves will be. We figured that one way to deal with it is to create an alternative to trucking, which is to move by rail across town."

The port is served by six Class 1 railroads: Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Canadian National Railway, CSX, Kansas City Southern Railway, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific Railroad. However, most of the port''s rail business is conducted with CN, CSX and KCS. BNSF, NS and UP have access but most of their business is interline, cross-country freight that doesn''t move into or out of the port.

The heart of the operation will be an intermodal facility adjacent to the new container terminal that was leased by CN until CN moved its intermodal operations outside of town. The NOPB, a nonprofit, publicly owned and operated switching railroad that provides rail service to the Class 1s, will connect the terminal facility to CSX, KCS and CN; the actual loading and unloading of containers and trailers at the port will be performed by a third party to be chosen in a bidding process that is still in the preliminary stages, Jaeger said.

The shuttle service "will be a major change in the way things are done," Jaeger said. "We''ll have to change some of the habits in New Orleans because we''ll have to provide a service that''s just as good as trucking. That''s difficult because trucking is known to be fast and efficient, compared to rail."

Although the point of the service isn''t to provide a faster service, the price will have to be competitive, Jaeger said, pointing out that New Orleans is a "cheap town for drayage," where standard rates are in the $70 to $80 range for a cross-town dray. "We want to make money or at least break even," he said. No capital investment will be required - the terminal is already in place - but the port and railroad will "probably see fit to make minor improvements, and we should be capable of doing it with retained earnings," Jaeger said.

He conceded that it may not be easy to sell the concept, at least at first. "Because different entities control who pays for the dray, things can get complicated," he said. "In some cases it''s the ocean carrier, some it''s the shipper, others it''s the Class 1 railroad. So we and NOPB have to reach out to all three and convince them it pays to use a steel wheel as opposed to a dray."

Jaeger also expects some resistance from local trucking companies "as we''re attempting to take away a portion of their business," he said. "No trucking companies depend on cross-town drayage. But at same time, I don''t think they''ll find this idea particularly attractive."

The steel-wheel shuttle is not the only effort in the works to help reduce congestion at the port. The port and railroad also would like to create an "inland port" by establishing a satellite terminal system outside New Orleans to cater to the regional truck market. It would permit trucks to drop boxes at remote facilities and eliminate trips into New Orleans.

"Containers and trailers are being offloaded right here in downtown New Orleans, and all these 18-wheelers are rolling over streets throughout a city that doesn''t have the infrastructure to handle it," said NOPB General Manager Jim Bridger. "It would truly impact the beauty of the old city if we put in a bunch of four-lane roads."

Instead of draying containers and trailers destined for truck terminals outside the city directly from the port, Bridger is proposing to use his railroad to shuttle intermodal loads some 30 miles outside the city to one or more satellite terminals that would be built specifically for the new service.

Such a network of terminals effectively would extend the hours of the port which is currently open only eight hours a day, five days a week. "They would be set up in outlying areas where truckers could come and go as they please," Bridger said. "Right now, because of restricted loading and unloading times, trucks are backed up in the morning and have to wait three to four hours to get in. An outlying terminal network would mean they''d just have to go to a different point to pick it up. It''s better for the city - you don''t have the wear and tear and congestion down in the port. It returns downtown to where it should be in terms of just having car traffic."

Exactly where the satellite centers are to be located has not yet been determined. "We''re hoping there''s one set up west of town for freight destined for Baton Rouge, Lafayette and western Louisiana, and one east of town for truckers coming in from Birmingham and Atlanta," Bridger said. The facilities would be located either directly on the NOPB, or possibly on nearby CN or KCS, over which NOPB could receive trackage rights.

One possibility is Port Manchac, a distribution center located 30 miles northwest of New Orleans in Ponchatoula, La. With road, rail and water access, the port would be an ideal spot on which to build an intermodal facility, said Bridger. But the key driver is the fact that it''s at the intersection of Interstate 55 and Interstate 12, and near Interstate 10. "With access to three interstate highways, we could save all those trucks - thousands per year - from coming into New Orleans," he said, adding that truckers coming to and from Memphis, Tenn., for example, could save up to six hours in transit times.

The costs associated with such an intermodal satellite network currently are being estimated. "As far as infrastructure, we''d likely have to put in some track, depending on the location," Bridger noted. "But I''d say that roughly 80 percent of the overall infrastructure for such a shuttle system is already in place. After offloading from boat to rail, we''d then lease the equipment that would be used to take trailers and containers to the outlying location and, depending on where we could build and how big, therein lies the cost to be determined."

The idea of inland ports is not new; in fact, Bridger looked to the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal, Va., for inspiration (see box). Bridger''s father, who worked as a division superintendent on the Shenandoah division of NS predecessor Norfolk and Western in the mid-1980s, was familiar with the VIP operation. "When I told him about the congestion at the port, he explained how the VIP worked and how it was a profit maker," Bridger said. "I can''t believe they''ve never done it here before - they''re doing it in a lot of places. Nothing keeps them from doing it operationally."