Surf and turf

Surf and turf

night to take in a Seattle Mariners ballgame, one will almost certainly hear the wails of freight trains several times during the course of the game as they rumble past the stadium out of Terminal 5, Terminal 46 or Terminal 18, the busiest intermodal container yards at the Port of Seattle.

As the sun sets, one's eyes might wander, tracking a fly ball, and see an air-cargo freighter overhead, heading for Boeing Airfield or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Looking west out of the park to shimmering Elliott Bay, clean, white ferries skim the water, and mammoth container ships plod steadily to or from Terminals 5, 46 and 18.

During an infrequent lull, one might hear the susurrus of traffic on Occidental, Royal Brougham or First Avenue, punctuated by a grumbling diesel tractor switching gears as it crosses those intersections to Alaskan Way and Terminal 5.

After the game, buses line up along First Avenue to take fans home. Most head for their cars and a slow crawl into some of the nation's worst traffic, while others walk to nearby ferry terminals.

Work and play in the Northwest is inherently, incessantly, intermodal.

Most of the boxes heading into the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are on their way somewhere else, usually entirely out of the region to Chicago, for instance, or the East Coast. Intermodal moves are the lifeblood of these ports, and making the intermodal lifelines function smoothly is a primary focus. "Freight mobility" has long been a Northwest rallying cry.

Ease of access and efficient connections in the ship-truck-rail interface are what make any port a success or failure. Seattle and Tacoma have done quite well in this game, while taking somewhat different approaches, and have spent - or will spend - more than $1 billion to make sure intermodalism continues to work.

Any time there is a disruption or even potential disruption to the system, such as a railcar or container shortage, it's a cause for major concern.

Recently, the president of a leading intermodal service provider warned that rail congestion in North America is squeezing the supply of containers, a situation that could reach crisis proportions later this year. "We will have the mother of all box shortages this fall," Jeff Brashares, president of Pacer Global Logistics' transportation division, told the Los Angeles Transportation Club in April.

Congestion on the intermodal rail network stretches from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Los Angeles, Chicago and all the way to the East Coast. This development is especially troubling because it began in the winter, traditionally the slowest period of the year for intermodal shipments.

For Brashares, the warning signs are clear: Union Pacific Railroad is struggling with a crew and power shortage; Norfolk Southern Railway's ramps in the East are busier than they were during the peak season last October; and CSX Transportation is dealing with operational problems in the East. And Canadian shippers were forced to ask the government to help resolve growing congestion problems on Canadian Pacific Railway that left 10,000 TEUs sitting on Vancouver's docks.

An unexpected flood of imports from Asia this winter caught the intermodal transportation industry by surprise. Ron Widdows, chief executive of APL Ltd. in Singapore, reported in March that vessels were leaving Asia fully loaded, something that normally doesn't happen until late summer.

The intermodal congestion problem in the U.S. is compounded by operational deficiencies on the rail networks. UP, for example, began to experience crew shortages a year ago when hundreds of crew took early retirement. This is resulting in slower average train speeds and delays in returning railcars and equipment to West Coast ports.

Network congestion appears to be worsening, Brashares said, and soaring imports from Asia could push the system into crisis mode by the late summer peak-shipping season.

"We've heard from carriers that because of a steel shortage, there may be container challenges," said Jeannie Beckett, senior director of inland transportation at the Port of Tacoma. "But we are not in a crisis; we simply have to monitor the situation as we enter the peak-shipping season," she said.

Beckett explained that grain-export shipments, especially corn, are up sharply because of strong markets to South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The port usually handles about 300 to 400 metric tons of corn a month, but that volume has increased to 600 to 700 metric tons a month and could remain at that level for some time. "The railroads are warning us that if the grain surge overlaps into the port's peak season, there could be congestion here in late spring or early summer," Beckett said. If grain shipments decline to normal levels going into the port's peak season, "we'll be fine," she said.

"Our niche is to get (the container) quickly on a train and get it to Chicago and the eastern states," Beckett said.

At Tacoma, intermodal lifts through the first quarter were up 5 percent, "about where we projected," she said. Fully 70 percent of the intermodal containers handled through Tacoma go by rail, with the rest moving on trucks.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and UP serve the port's three dockside intermodal yards, with switching and terminal rail service provided by Tacoma Rail, a division of Tacoma public utilities.

Unlike Seattle, UP and BNSF have their own railyards at Tacoma. They also have storage at Tacoma's major intermodal facility, the North Intermodal Yard, located on the main port peninsula between the current Evergreen Terminal (Terminal 4) and Terminal 7. Boxes move between these terminals and the intermodal yard without leaving port property or traveling on public rights-of-way. The system can handle about 90 double-stack container railcars or 265 conventional railcars.

The primary users of the North Intermodal Yard are Evergreen and "K" Line, but that will change dramatically early next year when Evergreen moves to the expanded and upgraded Pierce County Terminal, renamed the Evergreen Terminal. The $210 million project is the major feature of the port's $341 million capital-improvement program.

Evergreen's first vessel at the new terminal is scheduled to arrive next Jan-uary. Pierce County Terminal, located at the terminus of the Blair Waterway, currently is used for breakbulk, auto, heavy-lift and other specialty cargo. Much of the acreage is used for auto storage, but this will be relocated to the new Marshall Avenue dedicated auto facility.

The new 171-acre Evergreen Terminal will be the largest single container terminal north of Los Angeles. It is also the largest construction project in the port's history. Phase 1 of the project will have annual capacity of 480,000 container lifts, or about 840,000 TEUs. With the completion of Phase 2, acre-age will climb to 237 acres with annual capacity of about 1.2 million TEUs.

Evergreen's current T-4 facility comprises 75 acres, so the port expects a big jump in Evergreen boxes through the port as it settles into the new terminal. The port also is anticipating one or two new tenants to fill the space at T-4 vacated by Evergreen.

At Seattle, fully 70 percent of the containers moving through the port are intermodal in nature. "It's our bread and butter as far as the imports we handle," said Kent Christopher, the port's general manager of containers.

That percentage has held steady in recent years, and it is expected to remain that way this year, he said. Last year the port handled 600,000 TEUs of loaded import boxes. Approximately 420,000 TEUs of import cargo were put on rails. On the export side, Christopher said that of the 500,000 import TEUs, 40 percent came to the port via rail.

Through the first quarter, import boxes were up 10 percent, Christopher said. Intermodal has stayed "pretty steady and balanced," he added. So far the port has seen no railcar shortages. "There's been a steady supply," he said.

Seattle has two on-dock intermodal container yards at Terminal 5 and Terminal 18 and two major near-dock facilities operated by UP and BNSF. UP and BNSF yards "operate as an extension of our terminals," Christopher said. The huge BNSF Seattle Intermodal Gateway yard is across the street from the 70-acre Terminal 46, which is undergoing a $71 million upgrade and expansion.

That investment will increase the size of the terminal to 88 acres. Three new container cranes, each nearly $8 million, began operating at T-46 last fall, bringing the total number of cranes at the terminal to six. Other improvements at the terminal include the construction of a 16-lane truck gate - from 10 lanes - with optical character recognition technology, new buildings, a stronger pier apron and a new fender system.

T-46 also has dedicated in-gate lanes and out-gate lanes for intermodal cargo for efficient connections to UP and BNSF railyards.

Terminal 18 on Harbor Island, once the world's largest man-made island, is the port's largest container terminal. A $300 million expansion and upgrade was completed in 2002. The redevelopment of adjacent property on Harbor Island doubled the size of the terminal.

The expansion at T-18 included the addition of 90 acres for a total size of 196 acres. It doubled intermodal container rail capacity, enabling cargo to move directly onto railcars for UP and BNSF, and improved access to the container terminal though rail and road grade separations of route changes.

Its on-dock intermodal yard features a loading capacity of 58 five-platform double-stack railcars or the equivalent of two full trains, and adjacent storage for 58 five-platform double-stacks.

Last year the port spent $6 million for the addition of a second truck gate at T-18, which is leased and operated by SSA Marine. A total of 468 vessels called at T-18 last year, by far the most calls at any Seattle terminal.