Domestic rail intermodal container volumes grew in the first quarter by 10.2 percent over the 2012 level, the sixth consecutive quarter of year-over-year double-digit gains for domestic container services, the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA) reported yesterday.
The gains in domestic container service, a chunk of it coming from converting over-the-road truck traffic to lower-cost, more fuel-efficient rail, fueled a 4.5-percent overall year-over-year increase in intermodal volumes during the quarter, IANA said.
International container volumes in the quarter rose 3 percent year-over-year, with West Coast shipments rising at a faster pace than East Coast traffic, IANA said. Part of that may have been due to decisions by shippers and beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) to divert international volumes to the West Coast amid concern over a possible strike by longshoremen on the East and Gulf Coasts. Despite several strike threats, a work stoppage never occurred as waterfront management and the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) reached a six-year contract agreement in early April.
While intermodal trailer volumes declined 6.3 percent year-over-year, it marked an improvement over the double-digit year-over-year declines in the past two quarters, IANA said.
The lengths of haul of domestic and international movements showed "marginal but steady declines" in the quarter, IANA said. It did not quantify the reductions. A typical intermodal move stretches between 1,200 and 2,000 miles. However, railroads in recent years have shortened intermodal stage lengths to between 750 and 1,000 miles, making the service more competitive with truck.
Matthew K. Rose, chairman, president, and CEO of Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway, told the NASSTRAC annual conference and exposition in Orlando last month that domestic intermodal traffic rose to 24 percent of BNSF's total volumes in 2012, up from 20 percent in 2006. Last year, BNSF converted more than 30 truckers to intermodal service, Rose said. This year, it's added 14. In 2012, BCO's converted 100,000 units from over-the-road to BNSF, Rose said.
Shelly Simpson, president of the Integrated Capacity Solutions unit of Lowell, Ark.-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services, told the group that between 7 million and 11 million shipments a year now moving on highways have the potential to be converted to intermodal. Hunt touts itself as the world's largest user of intermodal services; for many years, UPS was believed to hold the title, though records have never been kept to quantify it.