Posts Tagged ‘container trains’

Some See TOFC Fading Away

July 5, 2021

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.

More Than a Stack Train

March 17, 2021

Norfolk Southern train 200 originates in Danville, Kentucky, and is goes to the Global 2 facility on the Union Pacific in Chicago.

At first glance it might appear to be a stack train. But in an era of precision scheduled railroading you might find intermodal trains carrying a variety of freight. Behind the containers was a long string of mixed freight.

The westbound train is shown running parallel to Indiana Avenue in New Castle, Indiana, on the New Castle District.

Pandemic Seen as Depressing Global Trade

June 19, 2020

International container traffic such as that seen on Norfolk Southern train 20T near Attica, Indiana, on the Lafayette District are at risk of becoming fewer as the effects of the COVID-19 on global shipping play out over the next year.

Global trade is expected to continue taking a major hit under two scenarios for the path the COVID-19 pandemic might take in the coming months.

The Organization for Econcomic Co-operation and Development, which is based in Paris, said one scenario is that the pandemic continues to fade and remains under control.

The other scenario is that a second wave of  COVID-19 emerges by the end of this year.

In both cases, the agency predicted that by late 2021 the loss of income will exceed that of any previous recession over the past 100 years outside of wartime.

Under the “single hit” scenaio, global real trade growth is expected to fall by 9.5 percent while under the “double hit” scenario it will fall by 11.4 percent.

Global trade in 2021 would grow by 6 percent in the single hit scenario but just 2.5 percent in the double hit scenario.

OECD Chief Economist Laurence Boone said there is a risk that the pandemic could cause container shipping companies to bring sourcing back home.

“The crisis has demonstrated the vulnerability of domestic production to sourcing inputs from distant locations through complex global value chains,” he said. “The latest data shows that foreign value added in production exceeded 50 percent in most economies and areas.”

Boone said that economies are diverging and the pandemic has accelerated the shift from “great integration to great fragmentation.”

BNSF Linking Seattle and North Baltimore

June 10, 2020

BNSF has introduced domestic intermodal service between Seattle and the Northwest Ohio Intermodal Terminal in North Baltimore operated by CSX.

In a message sent this week to shippers, BNSF said the container-only service will be offered five days a week for eastbound and westbound freight originating and terminating in Seattle.

The notice said containers can be forwarded from North Baltimore to such points as Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Louisville, and Pittsburgh.

Eastbound moves are expected to take 163 hours and westbound moves 167 hours from cutoff to availability.

BNSF has a haulage rights agreement with CSX that began in October 2018 and initially included service between North Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Service to North Baltimore from Northern California was added in April 2019.

Green Containers

September 12, 2019

Containers that railroads haul tend to come in various colors and markings making for a mish mash of colors as a train goes by.

You might see a cut of containers owned by the same company that provide a uniform appearance.

Such is the case with this eastbound Norfolk Southern intermodal train. The view is from the Front Street Bridge in Berea.

Apparently, it is not economically feasible for there to be unit trains of containers all belonging to the same shipping company. That is something I’ve yet to see.

Note that the lead locomotive pays tribute to 25 years of Operation Lifesaver.

Rail Intermodal Traffic Hits Plateau

March 7, 2018

A consultant on intermodal traffic recently told the Rail Equipment Finance conference that he sees growth in railroad intermodal traffic as having reached a plateau.

Ron Sucik, principle of RSE consulting, expects continued rail intermodal growth in the United States, but is not sure how much that will be.

He also said an electronic logging device mandate for the trucking industry has changed the nature of the motor carrier market although it remains to be seen what this means for railroads.

Sucik expects occasional surges of growth, but rail intermodal growth has exceeded the U.S. gross domestic product by two and sometimes three times only six times in the past 12 years.

The American Trucking Association has predicted that rail share will not likely divert many trucks from the highway to rail even if rail intermodal growth doubles.

Truckers believe that during the next decade or more they and not rail will continue to grow market share because there is that much potential freight.

Sucik said his sources have indicated that trucking companies such as JB Hunt, Schneider and Swift move less than 20 percent of containerized freight, excluding dimensional, flatbed and liquid, whereas railroads move less than 10 percent.

Seventy percent of container traffic is moved by the rest of the trucking industry, particularly by independent truckers moving freight that doesn’t lend itself to hub-and-spoke movements between larger consumption centers.

In the meantime, trailer on flat car loadings have been declining at a rate of 5 to 6 percent due to the emergence of double-stacked containers.

However, TOFC traffic increased 7.6 percent in 2017 while container traffic was up 3.5 percent.

Sucik said one possible explanation is a “four corner” distribution system whereby traffic is was more dispersed.

Although some observers say that the opening of a third set of locks in the Panama Canal and Panamax ships carrying more containers has diminished West Coast intermodal traffic, Sucik expressed doubt that this has had the adverse effect that some say.

He said the industry has been talking about “all-water diversion” for years and has watched most of it already happen.

However, traffic originating at the ports of Prince Rupert and Vancouver in British Columbia experienced growing traffic last year.

Railroad economist Jim Blaze believes that intermodal rail is concentrated into relatively few corridors with two-thirds of the freight moving in seven corridors. “Intermodal rail doesn’t go everywhere. Trucks do.” he said.

The only double-digit growth lane in North America, Blaze said, is the west-to-east Canadian corridor led by Prince Rupert’s rapid growth, which grew by 17.7 percent last year, exceeding all other rail intermodal lanes by a wide margin.

Sucik said that intermodal marketing people looking for new business don’t think like operating or financial people.

The marketing department might see short-haul traffic as a potential growth market, but the finance department replies why make the time and effort to move traffic with such a low margin of profit.

As the financial people see it, double-stacked container trains traveling longer distances can more easily pay for terminal infrastructure costs and for operations. So that traffic gets favored.

Shareholders are demanding lower operating ratios and low-margin traffic won’t help a railroad get there.

One wild card in the deck is that truck rates have posted the highest increases in years, hitting double digits in the past 12 months.

Shippers are paying 17 percent to 25 percent more on average than they did a year ago. Sucik sees in that some potential profit for railroads.

However, it might take an iron highway-type engineered rail platform to get it.

CSX and Canadian Pacific tried but have given up on the iron highway model.

Reviving the iron highway might require new trailer handling equipment that has yet to be developed.

Sucik said there is potential to gain additional intermodal rail market share in the short-haul range, but it would require a different approach that has thus far proven to be elusive.

Traces of the Central

October 19, 2017

The last New York Central passenger train to board passengers in Conneaut did so on October 25, 1962.

It was not, of course, the last passenger train to pass by the Conneaut depot. NYC and later Penn Central varnish rushed past until May 1, 1971.

Amtrak restored service a few weeks later but ended it in early January 1972. Until the coming of the Lake Shore Limited in October 1975, the former Water Level Route was freight only.

The Conneaut depot is now a museum and it has many artifacts related to the NYC and the other railroads in town, the Nickel Plate Road and the Bessemer & Lake Erie.

The NYC passenger platform is still visible next to the CSX Erie West Subdivision tracks.

Most people look at this image and see what it is, which is containers headed eastward on CSX train Q020.

But in my mind’s eye, I see an NYC passenger train arriving. The conductor is standing on the folding vestibule steps, his left hand on the railing of the silver Budd passenger car and his eyes scanning the platform for passengers.

People whose names I do not know are waiting, tickets in hand, to board for Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati Cleveland, St. Louis or who knows where else. All of those were cities you could travel to from this platform.

A check of the Official Guide of the Railways for June 1962 shows that the last NYC trains scheduled to stop in Conneaut were unnamed No. 222 eastbound from Chicago to Buffalo, New York; and No. 35, the Iroquois from New York to Chicago.

Everything else blew past without stopping just as Amtrak does today.

Whole Lot of Orange Rolling By

October 18, 2017

You might find yourself in an argument if you asked what the dominant color of October might be. Some might say orange for pumpkins and fall foliage, but others might say gold, which tends to be the dominant fall foliage color in Northeast Ohio. A case might be made for red as well.

Whatever the answer, I thought this image of a long cut of Schneider National containers on CSX train Q015 passing through Kent was a nice seasonal image. Bring on the orange and the gold and the red.