The leaders of the North American intermodal industry convened in sunny, steamy south Florida today to discuss what their industry can be, and what it can't.
It can be an alternative to over-the-road dry-van trucking, judging by data from consultancy FTR Associates. which estimates that 0.1 percent of all dry-van traffic is converted to intermodal each calendar quarter, a reflection of rail's reputation as a cleaner and more fuel-efficient transport mode, as well as shipper concerns over truck-driver shortages and never-ending road congestion.
But it is unlikely intermodal will ever supplant trucking in the budgets of shippers. Intermodal gets elevated in the conversation when oil prices rise and regulators and lawmakers appear to be clamping down on truck safety. However, the talk dies down when the opposite occurs. Today, diesel prices nationwide hover around $2.49 a gallon, the lowest level since June 2009 and far away from the $4-a-gallon-plus levels the conventional wisdom two or three years ago thought would be the case by now. In addition, Congress' 2014 decision to table a controversial provision in the Department of Transportation's governing the hours a driver must be idle before returning to the road has freed up capacity that would have otherwise been lost.
Larry Gross, senior consultant at FTR, told the Intermodal Association of North America's (IANA) annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale that Congress' actions effectively led to a 4- to 5-percent increase in truck capacity by allowing drivers and rigs more time on the road. That may explain why FTR pegs domestic intermodal traffic to grow just 1.6 percent in 2015, while international traffic, which has lagged somewhat recently, will rise by 6.3 percent.
For now, truck capacity is no longer in what Noel Perry, another FTR analyst, called "crisis mode." Like many observers, Perry sees the capacity crunch raging anew two or three years out, as the cost of increased government safety regulations puts many smaller fleets—the backbone of the U.S. truck fleet—out of business, and companies continue to struggle to find applicants who want to drive a truck.
What this means for intermodal is that while it makes great sense for resolving shipper-specific challenges, it does not auger a wholesale shift from truck, nor is it a panacea for the still-looming mother of all truck-capacity crunches. "We are a long ways away for truck capacity to be shifting to intermodal," Gross said.
That hasn't stopped the railroads from trying. William Clement, vice president, intermodal, for CSX Transportation, a unit of Jacksonville-based CSX Corp., said on a separate panel that CSX still "sees great opportunity for conversion from over-the-road (trucking), especially on the East Coast." Clement said intermodal accounts for up to half of CSX's overall growth. Tim Roulston, director, sales and wholesale intermodal for Canadian National Inc., the giant rail, said on the panel that CN would move relentlessly toward converting truck users because, frankly, that's what intermodal folk do. The fuel factor, Roulston said, is just one component of the strategy, and other qualities will be brought to the table to showcase intermodal's benefits. Intermodal accounts for about one-quarter of CN's traffic.
Shippers appearing on a panel with executives from CN, CSX, and Union Pacific Corp. said the intermodal supply chain, which includes dray drivers trucking goods to and from intermodal ramps, must focus on service consistency above all else. Denis Marion, director of U.S. transportation for the U.S. arm of Korean electronics giant LG Electronics, said it doesn't help if a box containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-value goods arrives at the destination ramp two days earlier than scheduled and must be moved to a yard because LG's customer isn't ready to take delivery. Marion, whose unit moves about a quarter of its goods via intermodal, said consistently hitting transit-time metrics is essential in satisfying end customers, who expect flawless delivery performance because they don't want to hold inventory.
"Don't make me micromanage every single box," Marion said.
That said, LG USA will spend more for intermodal service than for trucks on some lanes, because the company's needs justify it.
Ben Ball, director, transportation services, corporate freight, for Dalton, Ga.-based Shaw Industries Group Inc., the world's largest carpet manufacturer and a big flooring producer, said Shaw would like to devote more budget to intermodal—about 18 percent of Shaw's loads move via rail—if the service were to improve. "The service got bad and there was no hint as to when it would get better," Ball said.
Ball didn't specify a time frame, but he was likely talking about the disastrous period in 2014 when bad winter weather in the first quarter paralyzed the nation's rail system and threw intermodal service into chaos. The nightmare was compounded by what intermodal users said was the rails' inability to provide them with visibility into when things would improve.
Paul Boothe, director of transportation, TSP Development for Miami-based Ryder System Inc., said intermodal in 2014 accounted for $85 million of Ryder's $5.1 billion in transport spend. Boothe said Ryder will likely boost its intermodal spend to $100 million by the end of 2015, though he added that with a current on-time rate of 83 percent, intermodal's delivery performance needs to improve before more truck users make the switch.
Virtually everyone at today's sessions acknowledged that after a one- or two-year breathing spell, the trucking industry could face a capacity crisis that could bring trucking services of varying types to their knees. This could mean a great opportunity for the intermodal segment, as long as its executives recognize that their business, too, cannot survive without drivers and rigs.
Marion of LG said that many companies, including his, behaved badly toward drivers by taking them for granted, forcing them to sometimes wait hours to load and unload freight, and then blithely expecting the goods to be delivered on time. That mindset has changed, he said. "Everything we do today is about drivers," he said. He added, "We have to be the shipper of choice."
Shippers of choice would also do well with Clement of CSX. "We have to treat customers who are behaving the best," he said, noting that the railroad has created scorecards to encourage good behavior. One of the carrots, Clement added, is that more equipment will be reserved for better customers.