Some See TOFC Fading Away

For decades, trailers on flatcars have been a staple of U.S. freight trains. But over time TOFC has lost ground to doubled-stacker containers in well cars.

now some industry observers believe the endgame for TOFC will soon be at hand.

In an analysis published on the website of Trains magazine, intermodal analyst Larry Gross predicted TOFC will vanish within the next four years.

The long range implication for intermodal service is that railroads will no longer be able to serve as a plan B for shippers when trucking companies encounter driver shortages or when parcel shippers need extra capacity for peak volumes during holiday shipping seasons.

Intermodal traffic will become even more of a niche product for railroads than it already is.

Already, Gross noted, TOFC is gone in Mexico and Canada. In the United States TOFC accounts for just 8.5 percent of intermodal traffic.

As recently as 1988 TOFC was 60 percent of U.S. intermodal traffic.

TOFC has ebbed and flowed over the years and in the first quarter of 2021 TOFC traffic grew 26 percent, driven in part by an increase in parcel traffic triggered by explosive growth of e-commerce.

Gross, though, said traditional TOFC users are expanding their container fleets. For their part, railroads have encouraged the switch to containers by ending TOFC service on specific routes and terminals.

Railroads have also widened the rate differential between trailers and containers in another move to encourage the use of containers over trailers.

Not surprisingly, the move to precision scheduled railroading by most Class 1 railroads also has played a role.

Carriers prefer double-stacked containers because stack trains can carry twice the volume of a TOFC train of the same length.

Paring the number of trains on the road has been a major objective of U.S. railroads that have made the change to PSR.

Other reasons that railroads give for wanting to be rid of TOFC include the facts that trailers take up capacity in terminals, require separate lifting equipment, and must be placed on the few remaining TOFC cars maintained by TTX Corporation.

Yet from a shipper standpoint, containers are not always ideal.

Containers must ride on a chassis and shortages of those is a perennial problem for shippers.

Shippers also say that in some instances a container is not the best tool to move goods.

Gross projects that about half of current rail TOFC traffic will be converted to containers and the rest will move via highway rather than rail.

Shippers most likely to switch to containers are long-haul movers using 53-foot trailers, Gross said.

Business that is likely to be lost to the highway includes that which moves in 28-foot trailers favored by parcel shippers, such as UPS and FedEx, and shippers sending small lots of goods from origin to destination without a sorting move en route.

Gross said a few trailer-oriented services will continue to survive awhile longer, including Norfolk Southern’s Triple Crown RoadRailer service between Detroit and Kansas City.

The RoadRailers are likely to continue operating until the equipment wear out, Gross said.

TOFC has a long history dating to the former Chicago Great Western starting the service by loading trailers on flatcars in 1936.

At various times, railroads have sought to encourage the growth of intermodal business through innovation. RoadRailers are one such example.

There will continue to be intermodal trains and some of those trains will continue to receive expedited handling by dispatchers because shippers are paying extra for premium service.

But those trains will feature solid containers rather than the string of UPS trailers that have come to symbolize a railroad’s hottest trains.

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