Rail Operators Aim To Do More Short-Distance Hauling

Originally published on April 9, 2015 7:34 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Over the next few minutes, let's follow the journey that gets many goods to the stores where you buy them. A lot of those goods are carried on big semi trucks over long distances. Some will go by train. Now rail operators are trying to get in on the short game. WFAE's Ben Bradford reports.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: Most cargo gets moved around the country by truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK STARTING)

BRADFORD: But about a tenth of shipments - those going long distances - take the cheaper, more fuel-efficient train. So picture this system. A metal container full of foreign goods arrives in California on a ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORN)

BRADFORD: Dock workers of the entire container to a...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)

BRADFORD: ...for the 2,400-mile trip east. Then, in North Carolina, the container gets switched to a...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK)

BRADFORD: ...to head off to its final destination. When the entire container moves, the industry calls it intermodal transportation. And for railroads, it's been a way to bolster their role in the shipping industry. Back in the 1980s, they started stacking containers on top of each other. It was a big deal.

TOM JACOBY: Huge deal.

BRADFORD: Why?

JACOBY: Why? Because you can move double the freight in the same amount of train length.

BRADFORD: Tom Jacoby is providing a tour of Norfolk Southern Railway's $90 million intermodal facility which opened a little over a year ago in Charlotte. It's a 180-acre parking lot of cargo containers and railroad tracks. Here, the containers get switched between trucks and trains. Jacoby runs the place.

JACOBY: It's just my shiny new penny. I like showing it off.

BRADFORD: A constant stream of trucks pick up and drop off containers. Empty train cars roll along tracks and snap together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN CARS SNAPPING TOGETHER)

BRADFORD: A crane moves alongside, grabs a container, loads it onto the train and less than a minute later, moves onto the next one.

JACOBY: By the time this leaves, it'll be all solid double-stacks.

BRADFORD: Two trains go through every day. And about 1,200 trucks - Wal-Mart, Target, Electrolux and Black & Decker are just a few of the large companies relying on them.

JACOBY: You can basically go just about anywhere from here.

BRADFORD: Since 2000, enormous stations like this one have opened at a rate of about two a year across the U.S., according to one industry report. Each facility creates a new jump-off point where businesses can connect more quickly to lower-cost rail. The trucking industry, on the other hand, has an aging workforce and is plagued by driver shortages worsened by new regulations. So railroads with their intermodal facilities have taken most of the long-haul business from trucks. But they've run into a problem on shorter distances says Noel Perry, a consultant at transportation firm FTR Associates.

NOEL PERRY: They have not figured out a way to make intermodal profitable at anything less than, really, a thousand miles. There's some 800 or 900 but not a lot.

BRADFORD: Perry says one railroad in particular is trying to defy that - Norfolk Southern - by building more intermodal yards.

PERRY: You're right in the heart of this grand experiment.

BRADFORD: The railroad company's intermodal director, Christine Traubel, says with enough jump-off points for trucks, trains can compete on even shorter distances.

CHRISTINE TRAUBEL: Our sweet spot is sort of 550 miles or greater. That's where we see a lot of conversion happening.

BRADFORD: The company believes trains can replace more than a million trucks clogging East Coast freeways. Railroads have congestion problems, too, and without a trucker's flexibility to choose different routes depending on weather and traffic tie-ups. But overall, analysts predict truckers shortages will prompt more companies to move cargo to trains. Even the largest trucking trade group predicts intermodal will continue its rapid growth. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.