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Sept.7, 2015

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LAND LINES 54 THE JOURNAL OF COMMERCE SEPTEMBER 7.2015 Lawrence Gross TRACKING EFFICIENCY HEAD SOUTH ON Interstate 75 from Toledo, Ohio, and exit west onto Deshler Road in North Baltimore. As you head through the fields, you'll see what looks like a huge port facility, with giant wide-span overhead cranes. But there's no open water in sight. In fact, what you're seeing is the CSX Northwest Ohio intermodal hub, and there's nothing quite like it in the world. The scope of the facilit y is immense: seven huge million-pound, electric-powered, rail-mounted gantry cranes, each 100 feet high and with a span a bit longer than a football field, covering eight working tracks plus truck lanes and container stacks. Nine additional cranes sup- port adjacent tracks, each one well more than a mile long. Everything about the terminal is outsized. So too was the investment required. Opened in 2011, the CSX North- west Ohio intermodal hub is a unique solution to an age-old rail- road problem: How to maintain the economics of running large trains while prov iding ef f icient con- nections to a broad spider-web of locations on the system. The prob- lem goes back just about to the birth of the railroads. Individual railcars headed for a variety of destinations needed to be sorted intelligently and efficiently into trains. For many years, cars were "flat- switched" using locomotives to get each one into the proper train. In the late 1880s or early 1900s, depending on whose history you believe, the hump yard was invented, and the rails began to use gravity instead of the back-and-forth motion of the switch locomotive to direct the cars onto the proper tracks and make up the trains. When intermodal was intro- duced in the 1950s, each town had a small "circus ramp" for loading the intermodal flats, which then moved through the carload network just like any other car, rolling over the hump and onto the next merchandise train, intermixed with boxcars and hop- pers and every manner of railcar. But the "loose-car" network turned out to lack the speed and consistency required to pull intermodal traffic off the highway, and the railroads began to migrate toward the intermodal unit-train concept to increase speed and improve consistency. This brought the sorting prob- lem front and center again. Solutions were elusive. I remember, for exam- ple, the old Southern Railroad had an intermodal "mini-hump" in Atlanta that served the purpose in the 1980s, but the coupling impacts it produced proved unsatisfactory in terms of loss and damage, and it wasn't reproduced, as far as I know. In the absence of a good sorting solution for intermodal, the rail- roads turned to a corridor strategy and began to trim the intermodal terminal network ruthlessly. Only the largest locations, capable of pro- ducing efficient trainloads of volume that could be moved direct to desti- nation, would be allowed to remain. One giant sorting hub remained in the U.S. intermodal network, however: Chicago. The vast majority of trailers and containers travers- ing the gateway were grounded and driven crosstown to the connect- ing road, to be placed on the proper train. In essence, rubber tires and city streets substituted for the clas- sification yards of old. But t here's now a g row ing understanding that the old approach of simplification and concentration of volume has reached its natural limit. By its very nature, shorter- haul intermodal demands that more terminals be built closer to the origin and destination points of the intermodal load, and the chal- lenge is how to efficiently connect this increasingly complex network without sacrificing the economics of long trains. Fur t her, t he Chicago gate- way and its attendant "rubber tire transfer" model is imposing an ever- larger burden in terms of dollars and time. How to solve these problems? The CSX North Baltimore hub is one railroad's answer. The hub is essentially a giant classification yard for intermodal containers, with those huge gantry cranes serving as the functional equivalent of switch locomotives. Strategically located at an operational node of the CSX east-west network, it serves CSX in much the same man- ner as an airline hub. Containers are flown from one train to another rather than cars being switched, although flat switching still occurs when the volume of like-destina - tion cars in a train reaches a certain threshold. There is cost involved, of course, in terms of dollars and time, but the huge offset is that secondary terminal locations can be efficiently connected to the rest of the system via the hub, without sacrificing train length and efficiency. Although no other railroad has opted to mimic the CSX approach, that CSX already has invested in a major expansion of the North Baltimore facility would seem to indicate it's happy with the results. And regardless of whether it rep- resents the ultimate solution to the intermodal sorting problem, it's a bold approach and a big commit- ment to an intermodal strategy that seeks an efficient means to expand the business. Despite intermodal supposedly being a mature business, there are still some new things under the sun. JOC Lawrence J. Gross is president of Gross Transportation Consulting in Mahwah, New Jersey, and a partner at FTR Transportation Intelligence. A veteran with 34 years in the transportation business, he covers freight transportation, concentrating on the intermodal and trucking sectors from a transportation and equipment perspective. He is a frequent speaker at industry events. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter: @intermodalist.

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