It’s amazing where new logistics solutions come from. They are usually born by veteran shippers with visions on how to improve an existing operation. Or it can be a customer or customers seeking help in conquering a specific challenge that eventually resonates throughout the industry.
Then there is the inception of Chicago-based EagleRail Container Logistics’ signature solution. It can be traced to a pitch meeting for a new monorail in Brazil that was attended by a port authority official who was there more as a cheerleader than a participant.
Watching a Chicago marketing man’s PowerPoint presentation about his company’s passenger monorail system to local leaders in São Paulo eight years ago, the port representative, Jose Newton Gama, marveled at how the magnetic levitation (Maglev) trains holding people would be suspended under overhead tracks.
Then the Brazilian known by friends as Newton raised his hand.
“Excuse me?” he asked the Americano. “Could your system be adapted to hold shipping containers?”
That had never occurred to project designers, whose monorail cars for passengers are much lighter than would be required for cargo containers hauled by ships, trucks and freight trains. But the marketing man shared Gama’s question with his colleagues in the Windy City, and that planted the seed that eventually bore EagleRail Container Logistics.
Chief Executive Officer Mike Wychocki was an early investor who eventually bought out that marketing man, but the first EagleRail system is named “Newton” after the Brazilian who now sits on the company’s board of advisors. “He’s a great guy,” says Wychocki during a recent phone interview. “Newton is our biggest cheerleader.”
Wychocki’s no slouch with the pom-poms himself, having pitched EagleRail at 40 ports in 20 countries over the past five years. His company, which has offices around the world, is developing its first prototype in China, and studies are underway at six ports as EagleRail sets about raising $20 million in capital. (The window for small investments had just closed when Wychocki was interviewed. His company has since shifted its focus to large investors.)
The way ports have operated for decades left no need for a system like EagleRail’s. Big ships dock, cranes remove containers stacked on their decks and each box is then moved onto the back of a flatbed truck that either hauls it to a distribution center or an intermodal yard. Until recent years, no one really thought of disrupting the process because, as Wychocki puts it, “you could always find cheaper truck drivers.”
However, truck driver shortages, port-area air pollution and congestion caused by the time it takes to load and unload ever-larger ships have prompted serious soul searching when it comes to short hauls. Expanding the size of ports is often not an option due to the cities that have grown to surround them. This has led to the creation of large container parks for trucks and/or freight trains within a few miles of ports, but getting boxes to those remains problematic—at a time when megaships are only making matters more difficult.
“There is an old saying that ports are where old trucks go to die,” says Wychocki, who ticks off as problems associated with that mode of moving containers pollution, maintenance and fuel costs, as well as the issues of public safety because some drivers essentially live inside of their vehicles, which can attract prostitution and leave behind litter and human waste. Adding even more of these dirty trucks would necessitate more road building, which only adds to environmental concerns.
With ground space at ports a constantly shrinking commodity, tunneling underground may be viewed as an option. But Wychocki points out that many ports have emerged on unstable ground like backfill, and water, power and sewer lines are usually below what’s under the streets beyond port gates. The idea of a hyperloop has been bandied about, but it would require emptying shipping containers at the port, loading the contents into smaller boxes, sending those through to another yard, and then repacking the shipping containers on the other side. “That defeats the whole point” of relieving port congestion, the EagleRail CEO says.
Ah, but every port has unused air space, which is what Wychocki’s company seeks to exploit. “If an Amazon warehouse can lift and shuttle packages robotically,” he says, “why not do the same with a 60,000-pound package? Go to a warehouse. See how Amazon works with packages. They use overhead light rails. It’s an obvious idea, so obvious. It’s a no brainer when you think about it.”
Yes, Amazon also uses drones, but can you imagine the size it would have to be to carry a 60,000-pound shipping container? Wychocki sees a suspended container track as an extension of the cranes on every loading dock worldwide, which is why EagleRail systems are also all-electric and composed of the same crane hardware to avoid snags when it comes to replacing parts.
However, Wychocki is quick to note EagleRail is not a total solution when it comes to port congestion. He calculates that among the short-haul trucks leaving a port, 50 percent are going to 500 different locations, many of which are different states away, while the other half is bound for just a couple nearby destinations. EagleRail is geared toward the latter, and the problem with getting containers to them “is not technological; it’s who controls the five kilometers between the port and the intermodal facility,” he says.
Lifting equipment at ports “is exactly the same in all 200 countries,” he adds. “The part that is not the same is the back end. What is the port’s configuration? Where do the roads come in? What we do is form a consortium and build it with each local player, such as the port authority, the road authority, the national rail company, the power company. Getting everyone involved helps get procurement and environmental rights of way.”
He concedes that getting everyone on board “varies by location,” but when it comes to environmental concerns “everyone’s kind of wanting to do this because it means fewer trucks, and the power companies would prefer the use of electricity (over burning diesel). It sounds harder than it is to get everyone rowing in the same direction.”
Wychocki points to another bonus with EagleRail: It allows for total control of one’s intermodal yard because containers come and go on the same circular route—all day long. “We take this on as a disruptive business model,” he says, noting that short-haul trucks generally involve the use of data-chain-breaking clipboards and mobile phones. EagleRail systems track containers on them in real-time, rolling in all customs paperwork and billing invoices automatically.
“It’s amazing, I just came from the Port of Rotterdam, where I was a keynote,” Wychocki says. “Even the biggest ports in the world like Antwerp were saying, ‘This is great. Why isn’t anyone else doing it?’”
Actually, EagleRail accidentally created direct competition. Wychocki explains that during the initial design phase, his company worked with a foreign monorail concern whose cars used what were essentially aircraft tires rolling inside a closed channel. Concerns about maintaining a system that would invariably involve frequently changing tires—and thus slowing down operations—caused EagleRail to reject that design in favor of another third-party’s calling for steel-on-steel wheels. The designer with tires is pressing on with its own system and without EagleRail.
“I’m glad we didn’t go that route,” says Wychocki, who nonetheless expects more serious competition once EagleRail systems are up and running. Fortunately for the company, there are plenty of ports bursting at the seams that cannot wait that long. Wychocki says a question he invariably gets after pitching EagleRail is: “Where were you 10 years ago? Usually, there is an urgency.”
That’s why “our goal was to get out of the gate fast, build market share and our brand and create a quasi-franchise network,” says Wychocki, whose business model has EagleRail owning 25 percent of a system while the port and other local entities own the rest.
He estimates that within 10 years, 12 EagleRail systems will be operating. If that sounds like a pipe dream, consider that his company’s newsletter boasts 3,000 subscribers before a system is even up and running. Wychocki does not credit “brilliant marketing” for that keen interest. “It’s because every port’s problems are getting worse. Everyone is squealing about what to do with these giant ships that cannot be unloaded fast enough. They are desperate.”