When we talk about transportation, most people think of huge trucks running down the highway full of cargo headed to fulfillment centers. But there is a hugely underutilized transportation mode that is both cost-efficient and environmentally conscious: the rail system.
Investing in Railways
At WSI, we obviously believe in the importance of a good rail system. After all, we have one the largest networks of rail-served warehouses in the United States. And we’re not the only ones taking notice of the importance of railways in the supply chain industries. BNSF, the largest freight railroad network in North America, is heavily investing in this transportation option, including:
- $2.41 billion for maintenance, with nearly 11,000 miles of track surfacing and/or undercutting work, the replacement of 428 miles of rail and approximately 2.6 million ties, and rolling stock maintenance.
- $400 million for expansion and efficiency projects. On its Southern Transcon route between the West Coast and the Midwest, BNSF will continue a multi-year effort to add several segments of new double-track in eastern Kansas. When complete, the Class I railroad said it would have 50 more miles of track to support traffic growth.
As one of North America’s largest privately-owned 3PLs with facilities encompassing over 13 million square feet, we manage transloads for a wide variety of products such as:
- Paper, pulp & scrap
- Agricultural goods
- Construction steel
- Aluminum ingots
- Bulk chemicals & polymers
WSI works with its customers to provide low-cost solutions, whether rail or truck, to get their product to wherever it is needed. Our sophisticated inventory systems, including a railcar-friendly Warehouse Management System (WMS), allow our customers visibility down to the unit level, similar to truckload (TL) and less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments.
STATE OF INTERMODAL
Since the beginning of 2020, intermodal freight volume in the United States fluctuated due to the coronavirus outbreak. In April 2021, intermodal freight was up 33.8 percent compared to April 2020. Intermodal freight transport involves the transportation of freight in an intermodal container or vehicle, using multiple modes of transportation like rail, ship or truck. – statista.com“”
All of this growth in the rail system is happening while the trucking industry continues to face ongoing difficulties to mitigate high driver turnover. In fact, the American Trucking Associations’ advanced seasonally adjusted (SA) For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index decreased 5.1% in March (2021) after falling 2.3% in February. In March, the index equaled 106.8 (2015=100) compared with 112.5 in February.
Simply put, rail and trucking do not exist in their respective vacuums. Shippers frequently need both a truck and a train to get bulk products to market. Intermodal shipping is often the most cost-effective and efficient method of transport, combining the speed of trucks with the fuel-saving economy of rail.
COSTS AND SAVINGS
Intermodal options can be cost-competitive with trucking-only transport options, especially on certain days of the week. The sheer amount of product that can fit into one railcar is three to four times that which can fit in a truck trailer, and the railcar in question uses four times less fuel than a big rig.
That was the appeal of the rail system for one of our customers. The shipping manager was using trucking services to move shingles from a manufacturing location in Georgia to its warehouse operated by WSI in Allentown, PA. Now, with the help of WSI, they direct those movements onto a Norfolk Southern train for the 800- mile length of haul to its warehouse. We coordinate over four carloads a week, but those shipments can double during busier times of year.
A 3PL’s specific expertise in loading and unloading intermodal shipments is essential for mitigating damage to product; railroads used to be notorious for manhandling and marring lumber and other construction materials. WSI material handlers know how to load and unload railcars of all types, including box, center beam, flat and hopper cars. WSIs rail-served transload facilities also allow for buffer stock, in the case of shortages or damaged product. And, our experience shows in the numbers: WSI rail-served facilities turn upwards of 20,000 cars a year. Our customers can focus on their core business while we take care of the complex transloading, utilizing our deep understanding of industry-standard rail lead times to schedule pick-ups and deliveries.
Both our transload warehouse facilities and WSI’s sister company, WSI Freight Solutions, LLC, maintain strong relationships with truckload carriers and local dray operators, to get the best carrier performance at the lowest rates, keeping costs for our customers low.
- Rail transport can be cost-effective. Trains are four times more efficient than trucks, moving one ton of freight 470 miles on just a single gallon of diesel fuel. (source: Freight Rail Overview)
- Shipping via train is more environmentally friendly. Using rail is the most environmentally friendly way to move freight over land. Railroads are roughly four times more fuel-efficient than trucks. Shipping freight via rail limits greenhouse gas emissions and increases fuel efficiency, reducing the transportation carbon footprint. In fact, moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers greenhouse gas emissions by 75%. (source)
- Trains are capable of hauling large loads. Trains can handle high volumes of freight. In fact, one double-stacked train can hold approximately the same amount as 280 trucks. (source)
- Rail freight can be efficient. Railroads use advanced computer programs, known as fuel management systems, to ensure that each gallon of fuel moves a train as far as possible. The systems, fully integrated into the trains’ locomotives, provide engineers with real-time recommendations on how to operate the train to maximize fuel efficiency and train performance based on numerous variables including topography, track curvature, the weight and length of the train and even wind effect. Fuel management systems can improve fuel efficiency by up to 14%, depending on the route. (source)
With or without the current administration’s additional investment in infrastructure, intermodal shipping and rail transport aren’t going away anytime soon. Take advantage of the cost and environmental savings provided by our wide network of rail-served facilities today.