Detroit Company Seeks to Put Containers on Empty Auto Rack Cars

A Detroit company is seeking to develop a way to use empty auto rack cars to haul auto parts.

The theory between the idea proposed by Pro-Tech Group is that auto rack cars that otherwise would be returning to assembly plants empty would be able to earn revenue.

The firm has tested the use of shipping containers filled with auto parts with the containers designed to fit within the usable space of the railcars.

The test involved hauling pallets of wheel rims from California to Dearborn, Michigan. 

Pro-Tech did not disclose the automaker or railroads involved or how many test loads were handled.

However, a video posted to the company’s website showed containers being loaded at a Union Pacific auto rack ramp.

“The benefit of this process is to eliminate the 66,000 railcars that come back empty” each year, Pro-Tech CEO Earle B. Higgins tells Trains magazine.

 “Anytime you have 66,000 auto racks moving empty, there’s opportunities to grow. And the good thing is we can build our containers at the size of the commodities we move.”

The containers are designed to fold flat when not in use.

Higgins said the containers could carry any kind of freight so long as it does not involve hazardous materials or food products.

Some industry observers are skeptical about the usefulness of the concept due to the non standard sizes of the containers being used.

“It always sounds good in theory to utilize the empty backhaul, but I see a lot of cost in all these steps,” intermodal analyst Larry Gross told Trains.

Another unnamed observer called it an interesting niche concept, “but these types of systems are very complicated because the parts don’t often come from the consuming markets where the cars are destined.” 

Higgins, who once worked for automaker Chrysler, said he researched his idea before implementing it and seeking a patent for the containers.

He said railroad executives have been receptive to the idea because it would minimize empty miles that auto racks turn in.

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