Intermodal service has always scored points for cost savings and environmental sustainability. But many shippers have shied away from it out of legitimate concerns over the mode's speed and reliability.
That may be changing. John Lanigan, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, told attendees at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' "Annual State of Logistics" conference in Washington earlier this year that BNSF's intermodal service is achieving 95 percent on-time performance, a far cry from years ago when a 70-percent on-time record was considered the upper end of the performance scale.
Nashville, Ind.-based consultancy FTR Associates agrees that on-time performance has improved. Through the end of July, intermodal train speeds were averaging 34 miles per hour, significantly higher than the 29 to 30 mile-per-hour ranges recorded during the corresponding period in 2008, according to FTR's data.
"We can say that intermodal trains are 'flying' across the system in comparison to past years," says Larry Gross, an FTR consultant. Though the firm doesn't have similar data on intermodal's reliability, Gross says, he believes that intermodal service has become more consistent as well.
Railroads are not required to file intermodal performance data with the Surface Transportation Board, and the companies generally keep such internally generated data confidential. Neither the Association of American Railroads nor the Intermodal Association of North America has intermodal reliability data, and one railroad, CSX, declined to provide it. The Union Pacific Railroad Co. did not respond to a request for the information.
While Gross is bullish on intermodal performance, he does issue one caveat: The higher intermodal speeds may also reflect the economic downturn and weaker demand for intermodal service, which would have the effect of reducing congestion across the networks.