Rail shuttle idea gains traction

Rail shuttle idea gains traction

It was a horrific accident - a truck on Interstate 710, which serves the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, hit a car, crossed the median and rammed an oncoming vehicle. Six people were killed.

By coincidence, the crash happened only a few hours before John Doherty, chief executive of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, delivered a scheduled speech about the need for changes in the system of moving containers from the ports to inland points. A key component of his plan is a rail shuttle between the ports and distribution and transloading centers clustered 60 to 100 miles inland.

The proposed rail shuttle, discussed in Southern California since the 1980s, is gaining attention as truck traffic on I-710 produces traffic jams and occasional tragedies such as the fatal crash on Oct. 9.

Taking trucks off the highways is a concept that has gained credibility nationwide. A cross-harbor barge service between Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Port Newark-Elizabeth complex in New Jersey has operated for years. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey offers a barge service for containers moving to Albany, N.Y. The Virginia Ports Authority has a rail shuttle to inland intermodal yards. The Port of Oakland for two years has been studying the feasibility of shuttling containers to an inland site near Stockton, Calif.

Such intermodal projects are driven by a need to improve productivity at seaports by reducing the time that containers sit idle on marine terminals. "The objective is to decongest the port," said Don Breazeale, a Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., transportation consultant and former executive at Sea-Land Service.

The crush of truck traffic at major container ports has also created a strong political motivation to divert truck traffic to rail. Environmentalists and community groups are becoming increasingly outspoken about the diesel emissions, traffic congestion and safety issues caused by harbor truck traffic, especially at Los Angeles-Long Beach. The ports generate more than 30,000 harbor truck trips per day, a volume that's projected to triple in 20 years.

The Oct. 9 wreck revived the issue of port truck traffic for local news media and politicians, even though the crash did not involve a harbor trucker. The truck's cargo had entered through the harbor but was transloaded into a moving van at an off-port location, and it was the moving van that was involved in the accident. However, that did not stop Southern California politicians from blaming the ports.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., whose district includes the ports, criticized the ports for a "stupid and risky system" of moving goods from the harbor. Los Angeles City Council-woman Janice Hahn renewed her call for extended gate hours at marine terminals to reduce truck traffic during peak commuter hours.

Whether the motivation is safety or logistics, there is growing momentum in Southern California and elsewhere to shift harbor truck traffic to rail. By announcing that the Alameda Corridor authority sees merit in the concept of a rail shuttle, Doherty threw the weight of the nation's largest public-private partnership behind the proposal.

The $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor improved traffic flow in Southern California by consolidating four harbor rail lines with more than 200 grade crossings into a grade-separated, 20-mile corridor that links the harbor with the transcontinental rail network.

The corridor authority has been called a model for combining federal, state and private-sector funding for intermodal infrastructure projects, and Doherty said the authority's expertise offers a way to further slow the increase in truck traffic. The plan would be to encourage greater use of on-dock rail, which is operating at about 25 percent of capacity; widening the I-710 freeway; constructing another near-dock rail transfer yard, similar to Union Pacific's Intermodal Container Transfer Facility; upgrading east-west rail lines; and establishing a rail shuttle.

The rail shuttle to San Bernardino and Riverside counties will be the hardest sell. Containers would have to be handled twice - by rail to an inland intermodal yard and by truck to the warehouse. A study by the corridor authority determined that because of that, it would cost $360 to $380 to move one container from the ports to inland distribution centers by rail, compared with $250 to $290 by truck. A rail shuttle also would require construction of an inland intermodal yard. A 150-acre yard that could handle up to 1 million lifts a year would cost $220 million.

However, cargo volume in Los Angeles-Long Beach is growing so fast that marine terminals and highways soon may be unable to handle the truck traffic coming from the harbor. Doherty said the ports generate about 20,000 truck moves per week to the distribution and trans-loading facilities in the warehouses in the Inland Empire, as the area is known locally. "One way to reduce this traffic is through shuttle trains," he said.

Container volume moving from the harbor to the Inland Empire is probably sufficient to support a rail shuttle. Jeff Amos, director of the western region at consulting firm Don Breazeale and Associates, said warehouse and distribution space in San Bernardino and Riverside counties totals 360 million square feet. It is growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year.

The key to a shuttle service will be to convince shipping lines, marine terminals, railroads, truckers, government agencies and especially importers to share the extra cost involved in moving the containers by rail shuttle. "The hardest party to incentivize is the direct shipper," Amos said.

Government agencies can usually be convinced to participate in a project if they perceive a public good, such as a reduction in diesel emissions or improved safety on the freeways. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Southern California came up with $360 million for construction of the Alameda Corridor, Amos noted.

Importers will naturally resist anything that increases their transportation costs, but Amos said they probably can be convinced to pay for a rail shuttle if they can be shown that it will improve their overall distribution. "They have to know that their competitors are absorbing the same cost," Amos said. He noted that a $15-per-TEU user fee on cargo transiting the Alameda Corridor is passed on to shippers by ocean carriers.

Railroads will be difficult to convince because a 60-mile freight haul is too short to be profitable for them. "We don't do much under 1,500 miles. We can't make money on it," said Fritz Draper, vice president of business unit operations and support at Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

However, BNSF recognizes there is a need to divert truck traffic to rail across the nation, and especially in Southern California. BNSF is willing to consider a public-private partnership under the right circumstances, said Steve Branscum, the railroad's group vice president of consumer products marketing.

Shipping lines and terminal operators may be the most interested parties in a rail shuttle. Maersk Sealand sees benefits in faster movement of containers through its marine terminal in Los Angeles and reduced congestion at gates. Despite the higher costs, Maersk Sealand is "studying it," said Tom Boyd, a spokesman.

Of all the carriers in Los Angeles-Long Beach, APL Ltd. has expressed the strongest interest because it views a rail shuttle as a way to increase the capacity of its terminal, Breazeale said. "They know that congestion will eventually do the harbor in," he said.

If transportation planners are serious about reducing truck congestion around the harbor, they should isolate a rail shuttle's component costs and meet with carriers and shippers to apportion them fairly, Breazeale said. "It requires collaboration. No one entity can do it alone," he said. The exercise should include benefits as well as costs, he added.

Doherty said the issue is complex but not impossible. "Some people say it can't be done," he said, "but people said the same thing about the Alameda Corridor."