XTRA BEEFS UP NEUTRAL CHASSIS POOLS \ ASIAN TURMOIL, NEEDS OF SHIP LINES WORK IN FAVOR OF LESSORS

XTRA BEEFS UP NEUTRAL CHASSIS POOLS \ ASIAN TURMOIL, NEEDS OF SHIP LINES WORK IN FAVOR OF LESSORS

The ongoing Asia crisis and increased outsourcing by ship lines is creating new demands and opportunities for container chassis lessors, according to Xtra Corp., a leading intermodal equipment supplier.

Xtra, based in Boston, will expand its neutral chassis pools to meet shipper demands and changes in international trade patterns, said Karen McHenry, the company's marketing manager.The company has ordered more than 500 new chassis this year for Xtra's pools in Houston; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis; and Dallas. Xtra also will add two neutral chassis pools in the United States later this year, Ms. McHenry said in an interview. The sites have not been identified.

''We are seeing a strong utilization of all our pools at locations. It's about two to three months earlier than we've normally seen,'' she said. ''We see as the source of that increased business the increased imports from Asian markets.''

The stock and currency crises that rocked Asia late last year have resulted in a widening trade deficit with Asia. The currency plunges mean Asian products are cheaper for U.S. importers, and Xtra already is feeling the increased import surge in demand for chassis, Ms. McHenry said.

The twin demands from the Asia import surge and steamship lines increasingly outsourcing means that the Xtra Intermodal division in Liberty, Mo., is anticipating increased growth between 10 percent and 20 percent this year. Neutral chassis pools like those operated by Xtra are tapped by various intermodal transportation providers. They collectively use the neutral pools to cut equipment costs and improve their operating service because they do not have investment and manpower tied up in tracking and maintaining the chassis.

Ship lines, railroads and trucking companies lease the neutral chassis on an as-needed or contract basis and enjoy newer equipment often than those companies that have an internal pool of chassis.

Because of the demands from the Asia import surge and greater outsourcing, the growth that Xtra and its competitors expect will come from more of the same sources rather than new markets, officials said.

One area where available chassis are desperately needed is in the growing but complicated the Mexican market. Xtra Intermodal works with its sister company, Xtra Mexicana , but much of that business is tied to trucking - which accounts for roughly 75 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade.

While larger ship lines like Transportacion Maritima Mexicana have their own chassis equipment in Mexico, smaller vessels or individual shippers have a much harder time.

''It's awfully hard to find free chassis,'' said Patrick Dunbar, Latin America marketing manager for Transmarine Navigation Corp., a Long Beach, Calif.-based shipping agency that does business at the Pacific Port of Manzanillo, Mexico.

Xtra's focus for the moment remains on two chassis pools in Mexico, one in Mexico City and the other at the northern industrial city of Monterrey.

''I would say the focus will continue to be the North American markets,'' Ms. McHenry said.