TRIPLE CROWN'S EXPANSION ON TRACK

TRIPLE CROWN'S EXPANSION ON TRACK

Barely eight months after it gained a full set of parents, Triple Crown Services Co. remains on a carefully crafted course of expansion, with plans to introduce new equipment and new service to Dallas, Houston and Miami in 1994.

"We're looking at a target date in June for service to Texas and Miami," said Dan Cushman, Triple Crown's president.The new market entries are part of Triple Crown's growth plans. The first moves were made when the Fort Wayne, Ind., company leaped into the Chicago-New York, Chicago-Atlanta and Atlanta-New York lanes in April 1993.

This was when Triple Crown officially became a joint venture of Consolidated Rail Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. Before that, NS had sold Triple Crown on its own for six years.

Since then, other roads, such as Burlington Northern Railroad, Union Pacific Railroad, Southern Pacific Lines, Florida East Coast Railway and CN North America, have expressed interest, Mr. Cushman said.

"Before, a lot of people, not shippers, but other transportation providers, doubted the worthiness of RoadRailers," Mr. Cushman said. "But when we signed the deal with Conrail, other railroads began talking to us about putting together deals."

For example, CP Rail System has begun operating a RoadRailer train between Detroit and Toronto under contract to Triple Crown, said Larry J. Gross, president of the RoadRailer division of Wabash National Corp.

Wabash is the Lafayette, Ind., highway trailer builder that makes the dual rail/truck-wheeled RoadRailers.

And either Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Burlington Northern will get the nod to handle service to Dallas and Houston.

The growing interest in Triple Crown is evident in the company's fortunes. Triple Crown, which first slid into the black in Jan. 1992, will do about $150 million in revenue in 1993.

On the equipment front, Triple Crown plans to introduce a new refrigerated version of its RoadRailer equipment and will add 713 new Mark V units and 357 bogies in 1994, Mr. Cushman said.

Triple Crown currently operates a fleet of 3,000 RoadRailer vans, which can operate as either highway trailers or railcars, and 650 domestic containers.

Wabash, the maker of RoadRailers, has built a refrigerated prototype as well as a "ChassisRailer" prototype. ChassisRailer, which is able to haul either RoadRailer trailers or containers, is being eyed by both Triple Crown and Burlington Northern, RoadRailer's Mr. Gross said.

In addition, Triple Crown is testing a new lightweight 53-foot trailer that is 1,000 pounds lighter than new trailers due to be introduced by J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., the nation's second largest truckload carrier.

Shippers said the new RoadRailer trailer's tare weight of 15,200 pounds will give Triple Crown a significant advantage over J.B. Hunt, whose trailers have a tare weight of 16,200 pounds. RoadRailer plans to go into production of the aluminum, plate-walled units in 1994.

Triple Crown has also ordered 200 53-foot trailers with interior measurements and cubic capacity equivalent to highway-only trailers.

While all this new equipment will eventually join Triple Crown's fleet, the 750 new Mark V's are already headed its way. Their arrival will allow Triple Crown to retire older Mark IV RoadRailer models that have permanently attached rail wheels and axles.

The purchase of the new Mark V units, worth well over $20 million, represents the largest sale in Wabash's history, said Donald J. Ehrlich, the Lafayette, Ind., railcar builder's president.

By replacing the Mark IV's with newer Mark V vans, which use a separate bogey when running on track, Triple Crown can lower its operating ratio to the low 90s or high 80s from the current 97 percent.

Triple Crown is also deep into double-stacks, using the NS's stack trains in the Chicago-Atlanta lanes and has shipments aboard Conrail stack trains between St. Louis-New York and Chicago-New York. "We're looking for expansion in trucklike lanes," Mr. Cushman said.

On the operating side, Triple Crown's new terminal in Newark, N.J., will open in January. This culminates months of behind-the-scenes talks to get the intermodal service into the New York area.

Norfolk Southern had longed to enter the New York area for years, said Thomas L. Finkbiner, assistant vice president, international intermodal marketing, who called the region the "biggest truckload market in the world."

But it took a year of steady negotiations between NS and Conrail, and then Conrail's labor unions had to ratify a two-man crew agreement before RoadRailers in New York became a reality.

Triple Crown has also applied to the Federal Railway Administration for permission to run trains as much as 125 vans long, up from a current limit of 75, but first, problems with maintaining air pressure for braking have to be addressed, Mr. Cushman said.