To rail or not to rail…The Intermodal Train Question

Now that is The Question, and the answer is much simpler than it seems. Before you look at the price difference, the product, the way it’s loaded the very first question you need to ask is. “How desperate am I for this cargo?” For all its strengths Intermodal Rail Transportation has one defining weakness. It’s slower.

In a climate that is turning more and more towards Just in time shipping and sparser inventories being warehoused, intermodal is now a specialized mode of transportation that is best suited for a select business type. Rail transit times for cross continent hauls, California to Montreal for example, can be up to 4 days longer than its truck counterpart. Then there’s the possibility of delays at the rail hubs while the cargo changes hands from one rail provider to another. But for every con there’s a pro. So here I go in point form.

Top 5 Pro and Cons of domestic Intermodal transportation.

Top 3 Cons

    1. The aforementioned transit time needs to be one of the biggest con in my book. The only saving grace of this issue is that it is widely publicised, and agreed upon, so when a client opts for this service they know what they are getting.
    2. Limited equipment. This is the thorn in every planner, dispatcher, ops managers side. In the rail world they refer to it as “The Bubble” and this can refer to the container or rail car supply. The basic theory is if imports from one location to another spike “the bubble” of equipment moves only in one direction leaving an imbalance in the areas that the equipment is needed and a surplus in dormant areas. Forecasting and planners at the rail lines are darn good at their jobs and normally avoid this phenomenon but it still occurs making finding a 53 foot intermodal container on some weeks on the west coast more like the Wild West.
    3. Shake, Rattle and Roll. Rail Transport is not the most graceful of the modes of transport and even under normal circumstances there are is a lot of force applied to the cargo within the container. The coupling of the rail cars (or Shunt) can exert up to 4g of force either forwards or backwards. Less drastic than that is what is known harmonic vibration that is not experienced by over the road trucks due to their suspension and rubber wheels. In a rail car or container these micro vibrations can cause cargo to float at a certain speed and move latterly within the unit (imagine a cell phone on a slanted surface when it is on vibrate). If shipment is not properly secured, damage is imminent.

See below links for 2 great resources on the subject of securing cargo :

Top 3 Pros (now the good stuff!)

    1. Money, Money, Money. Rail transport is much less expensive than its Over the Road Truck Transportation counterpart. Basic economics apply. More cargo being pulled at once translates to lower per unit rates.
    2. Immovable Force! Well not immovable but pretty darn heavy. An average freight train can pull around 280 double stacked containers, at a length between 1 and 1.5 miles long. (or longer! Check this out) This means freight trains are less susceptible to external factors like adverse weather conditions and they face much less traffic.
    3. Need to know. Most rail providers provide great track and trace tools directly on their websites. In most cases we are able to locate the rail car/container immediately within 100miles of its actual location with a few key strokes. With thousands of containers moving on a daily basis within continental North America these procedures and tools have been tweaked and refined to the point that you are never to long before an update on your shipmen is available.

So there it is. My Verdict: if the cargo and time frame are right, put it on steel wheels and forget about it. But if you needed it here yesterday… Time to get it in a truck.