There's been a lot of movement on the intermodal front this year, which to me is a portent of good tidings for trucking. With increasing traffic congestion married to crumbling infrastructure and an ever-greater desire for long-haul drivers to gain more home time, intermodalism seems poised to make some steady strides in truck-rail and truck-rail-water combinations.
In early October, for example, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation got the green light to start establishing a national network of “marine highways” to help move cargo across the country in order to cut congestion on some of our busiest roads. This would make specific maritime inland and coastal maritime corridors eligible for up to $25 million in existing federal capital construction funds, while also qualifying for up to $1.7 billion in federal highway congestion mitigation and air quality funds.
Building and expanding a waterborne freight network that links to trucking is something Sean T. Connaughton, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, has encouraged for some time. “When moving high volume and bulk freight, short-sea shipping is more cost-effective, is more fuel-efficient per cargo ton mile and is a vital alternative transportation mode in a natural disaster,” he said in testimony before the U.S. Congress last year. “When fully integrated into the nation's transportation system, marine highways will facilitate enhanced freight flow, expand freight capacity, reduce congestion, and improve air quality.”
Truckers know the value of intermodal. The late Johnnie Bryan Hunt himself blazed the trail decades ago when he realized he could buy freight rail capacity at wholesale prices, then package it with his long-haul trucking services, and sell the whole thing to shippers at retail pricing. Though his initial foray into intermodal didn't pan out, his legacy — truckload carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services — is today reaping considerable benefits from it.
“The significant growth in our intermodal segment reflects our solutions philosophy and our ability to execute on that strategy,” wrote Kirk Thompson, J.B. Hunt's president and CEO, in the carrier's third-quarter earnings report. “While we anticipate that we will continue to be able to provide adequate capacity to meet our customers' truck transportation needs, it has become increasingly clear that long-term value for our customers is enhanced by the conversion of as much of their freight to our best-in-class intermodal service as possible.”
Thompson said lengths of haul beyond one day's transit — about 500 mi. — should be considered prime targets for conversion. “It is part of our … transformation from the asset-based truckload company of the past to a diversified transportation solutions business with far less cyclicality, capital intensity and earnings volatility that is frequently associated with trucking,” he explained.
Thompson added that some shipments increasingly take an “all-water route” to ports in parts of the country other than the West Coast — and that is raising the intermodal stakes for long-haul, for-hire carriers. “In increasing numbers, traditional over-the-road shippers are turning to intermodal for the first time as customers seek solutions that will reduce both carbon emissions and their overall transportation cost,” he said.
If anyone can make such an intermodal system work, it's truckers. And by doing so, they may get relief from a lot of the headaches that have bedeviled them in recent years on the roads.