Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, September 15, 2017

No, I’m not talking about the “Previews of Coming Attractions” often seen prior to the feature film in a movie theater.  What’s going on here is an entire bridge full of them, in their highway (and rail intermodal) incarnation.  Yes, “Big Rigs” and “Eighteen Wheelers”; in this case, however, minus their tractors, and drivers.  Replacing the tractors are a pair of Norfolk Southern General Electric “Catfish” locomotives, teamed with a lone EMD; in the lead unit are an engineer and a conductor.

Once, rail intermodal consisted almost entirely of what was termed TOFC, or “Trailer on Flat Car” service.  Eventually, containers began to be handled in significant numbers, particularly for international shipments.  And, as we know now, following some initial problems, which the October issue of TRAINS addresses in detail, the economics of double-stacking have prevailed now in the domestic market, at least where clearances permit.  As a result, containers have all but eliminated trailers in many, if not most, lanes.

The AAR (Association of American Railroads) “Rail Intermodal Keeps America Moving” information piece published in April 2017 charts this decline graphically.  In 2000, trailers were about 30 percent of the total (containers and trailers) U.S. rail intermodal traffic.  The absolute number of trailers declined modestly, from slightly less than 3 million in 2000 to about 2.5 million in 2008, however, total movements climbed from about 9 million in 2000 to about 11.5 in 2008 due to significant growth in the number of containers transported by rail.  As of 2016, trailers were slightly over 1 million, while the total was about 13.5 million, resulting in a share of less than 10 percent for the trailers. 

Thus, when this Norfolk Southern westbound started over the Rockville Bridge just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania last Saturday, September 9, I wasn’t startled to see a small complement of trailers ahead of the stacks.  The containers themselves were from some of the “usual suspects”, including EMP and FedEx, in both single and double-stack configuration.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the length of the trailer parade that followed the containers.  The Rockville Bridge is 3820 feet long, according to Wikipedia, and eventually, it was filled, with more beyond both ends, with good, old-fashioned TOFC, with no intervening containers.  Interestingly, while there were some Yellow Freight and Roadway trailers near the front, most of the others bore names that were not as prominent, including Alliance, BDR Transport, Clipper, Global, Knight (which was merged with Swift effective the following day, September 10, 2017), Kreilkamp, Marten and Taylor.  There was even a single unit from retailer Hobby Lobby.  The small parcel/Integrators UPS and FedEx, usually present when trailers are moving by rail these days, were, with the exception of a single UPS Freight example, absent almost entirely.

In Norfolk Southern’s 2016 Annual Report, they indicate that domestic intermodal traffic was up in both 2015 and 2016 from the prior year, due at least in part to “continued highway conversions”.  They are optimistic about this year also: “For 2017, we expect higher domestic volumes driven from continued highway conversions and growth associated with new and existing customers”.  I wonder if the number of trailers in this mix will continue to decline, or possibly, if the decline has bottomed out, if this sector might even grow modestly.  In any case, while what I saw on September may have been an unusual situation, it certainly was an impressive, albeit unexpected, sight!

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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