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  January 25th, 2018 | Written by


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  • Intermodal on-dock rail service provides rapid turnaround for the movement of imports and exports.

The era of the big containership is taking United States East Coast ports by storm. It was in 2016 that an expanded Panama Canal opened, allowing larger vessels of 14,000 TEU—double the previous Panamax level—to drop imports from Asia off at ports from New York to Miami. Those megaships started arriving almost as soon
as the expanded canal was completed and that means more cargo is being handled from fewer ships.

At the macro level, container shipments from Asia to the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. grew by 7.9 percent in 2017, according to a recent report from Drewry, while West Coast ports managed only a 1.3-percent increase. At the port of New York and New Jersey, August 2017 saw cargo increases of 7.5 percent, while the
number of vessels serviced fell by 18 percent. That’s testimony to larger cargo volumes per ship.

What does all this mean? The new giant containerships bring the prospect of increasing cargo volumes—but also port congestion, straining the capabilities of terminals, roads and truckers to handle them. Developing rail alternatives to get containers to and from East Coast ports has become all the more critical, and millions of dollars in investments have been brought to bear to respond.

But the phenomenon is not limited to the East Coast. As the data cited above suggests, the expanded Panama Canal has pitted East Coast and West Coast ports in greater competition for Asian cargo. So, it’s just as important for ports from Washington to California to invest in the rail infrastructure to make the handling of imports and exports that much more efficient.

Rail is critical to the competitiveness of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which comprises the ports of Tacoma and Seattle,  according to Mike Reilly, NWSA’s director of Intermodal. “How we handle the rail system is tied to the level of discretionary business we are able to attract,” he says. Thirty-five percent of imports at NWSA are transloaded to 53-foot equipment, half of  which departs the port by rail.

In the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region, trucks transport more than 90 percent of goods moved, an unsustainable level given environmental concerns, wear and tear on highway infrastructure, and the fact the 400-million tons of freight now moved annually is projected to increase 35 percent by 2040. That’s why the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is focused on “anything we
can do to take cargo off the road,” says Bethann Rooney, assistant director in the PA’s Port Commerce Department.

The seemingly meager NYNJ rail numbers actually represent improvement, as on-dock rail lifts increased 65 percent since 2005. That growth is attributable to $600 million in investments in the Port Authority ExpressRail yards in Elizabeth, Newark, and Staten Island, as well as significant private investments. One area facility, the Port Newark Container Terminal, doubled its on-dock rail track from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, part of a $500-million expansion begun in 2011.

PortMiami has also been working to expand cargo services from the Far East, and the expansion of the port’s intermodal rail infrastructure is one reason why it’s working, according to port Director and CEO Juan M. Kuryla. “Intermodal on-dock rail service provides rapid turnaround for the movement of both imports and
exports,” he says.

Containerized cargo volumes grew at PortMiami by 17 percent between 2014 and 2016. The Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) on-dock intermodal rail service connects the port to a network reaching 70 percent of the U.S. population within four days.

“We are positioned to support vessels capable of hauling more than 10,000 TEU,” says Jim Hertwig, the company’s CEO. “FECR will continue to promote multi-modal shipping and support global trade into and out of South Florida.”

At the Port of Virginia, the ongoing expansion of the Virginia International Gateway, one of its main container terminals, includes doubling the footprint of its on-dock rail. “VIG is being developed as a semi-automated terminal with on-dock rail and enough berth to service three large vessels at one time,” says John Reinhart, CEO of the Virginia Port Authority. “The expansion will deliver a 40-
percent increase in our container capacity when completed.”

Over on the West Coast, the Port of Long Beach is also in the process of doubling the capacity of its on-dock rail, part of a $4 billion expansion. “On-dock rail expansion is a key investment for the port of Long Beach and a critical environmental initiative for reducing truck congestion and related air pollution,” says former port CEO Jon Slangerup, currently CEO of American Global Logistics. “Every train the port moves eliminates between 750 and 1,000 truck trips, which not only relieves truck congestion at the port and on our roads but also significantly improves air quality.”

At NWSA, investments in 2016 and 2017 of $18.5 million contributed to the reworking of all storage tracks at the Port of Tacoma, making operations more efficient and improving capacity and fluidity. The project also involved the expansion, from three to five, of the number of arriving and departing tracks in the harbor.

“Before, we could not arrive and depart trains concurrently,” Reilly notes. Since Nov. 1, 2017, Tacoma and Seattle service intermodal trains of up to 10,000 feet in length.

Future developments include the redevelopment of Terminal 5 in Seattle, where the recently completed environmental impact statement calls for the buildout of additional rail capacity in that location, depending upon future requirements.

Back in NYNJ, a recent report from the New York City Economic Development Corp. noted that there is but limited capacity for additional rail freight facilities in the region. There is also no rail infrastructure that can move cargo directly from the New Jersey to the New York side of the harbor. That vacuum is being filled in part
by a railcar float service from New Jersey terminals to the 65th Street Rail Yard in Brooklyn. This hybrid rail/water operation eliminated 1,200 truck trips in 2016.

That’s also why, among the goals of the Port Authority, according to Rooney, are land-use optimization and “getting more bang for the buck.”