The Alameda Rail Corridor

The Alameda Rail Corridor

Source: adapted from Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.

The Alameda Corridor is a 20-mile-long rail high capacity freight expressway linking the port cluster of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the transcontinental rail terminals near downtown Los Angeles. It was built to provide better rail access to the San Pedro Bay port cluster which is the most important in North America both in terms of the volume and value of its containerized traffic; it handles about 70% of the American West Coast containerized traffic. The Alameda Corridor consists of a series of bridges, underpasses, overpasses and street improvements that separate rail freight circulation from local road circulation. The outcome is a higher level of efficiency of both systems, particularly since a large number of rail crossings were removed. The main engineering achievement of the corridor is a 10 miles long 33 feet deep trench that virtually removes the rail infrastructure from the local communities. Construction started in April 1997 and the corridor began operations in April 2002.

From an operational standpoint, the Alameda Corridor is jointly used by BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe; 40%) and Union Pacific (60%) railway companies, the two major railroad operators in the American West. Their rail yards, Hobart (BNSF) and East Los Angeles (UP) handled respectively 1.37 million and 358,000 lifts in 2007. About 30% of the port transshipment traffic is handled through the Alameda corridor, implying that still, 70% of the freight traffic involves trucks using local roads. Typical transit times between the port and downtown Los Angeles rail yards have been reduced from 2-6 hours (depending on congestion) to a reliable 45 minutes with average train speeds of 40 miles per hour. Traffic is not uniform and corresponds to the arrival of containerships in the port cluster, so there are periods of peaks and through. In spite of its numerous advantages, the corridor did not perform as planned as competition from trucking is stronger than expected. Because of the benefits of transloading maritime into domestic containers, the growth of the Alameda corridor is somewhat curtailed. The slow start the corridor is facing can be attributed to the following:

  • Locally bound freight flows. About 80% of all freight tonnage originating in Southern California stays in the region. For international trade, Southern California is the destination of nearly 25% of all inbound cargo coming through the ports. Another 25 to 35% of the cargo temporarily transits through Southern California as part of a value-added process within commodity chains. Thus 50 to 60% of all inbound cargo is not very suitable to be carried through the Alameda Corridor. Because of the implied lower costs and shorter transit times, local and regional shippers find it more convenient to haul freight directly from the port cluster.
  • Relative transport costs. The trucking industry has experienced a lot of rationalization since the Alameda project was planned in the 1980s with the emergence of large carriers efficiently managing their distribution and lowering their costs. The anticipated comparative advantage of using the corridor has not fully materialized, making it cheaper and easier to move containers by truck than by train. Corridor fees are $24.51 per TEU for a full container and $6.11 per TEU for an empty container.
  • Relocation of the bottleneck. Travel time reduction provided by the corridor could be offset by congestion at other rail terminals up the chain, starting at downtown Los Angeles. For some cargo, particularly time-sensitive freight, a direct haul by truck from the port cluster to an inland intermodal facility is more efficient than using the Alameda Corridor. For instance, the Intermodal Container Terminal Facility (ICTF) is located just 5 miles from the port and performed 710,000 rail lifts in 2007. It is mainly used for containers trucked to and from the port in a more time effective way than the corridor.
  • High intermodal costs. It is a well-known fact in transport economics that due to rather high intermodal costs, rail starts to have cost advantages for distances of more than 1,000 miles. This enables rail operators to amortize these intermodal costs. In addition, drayage and terminal handling for the Alameda Corridor add 8 to 24 hours compared to trucking. Intermodal rail operations have limited activities for distances under 750 miles. The corridor thus represents an unusual distance for regular intermodal freight distribution.
  • Freight distribution centers. There is a large concentration of FDCs in the Los Angeles metropolitan area performing their value-added functions (sorting, assembling, packing, etc.). The great majority of those FDCs were designed to accommodate trucks. For these activities using the Alameda Corridor would imply additional costs and delays. In addition, several distribution centers are receiving international containers trucked from the port. They are then unloaded and their contents placed in 53 domestic containers, which are trucked back to a rail yard and shipped to their final destination. Domestic containers are easier to handle on the national intermodal transport system in addition to have a greater capacity. Thus, three maritime containers can be transshipped into two domestic containers.

The Alameda corridor thus represents an unusual intermodal system for freight distribution. Its long term success leans mainly on efficient intermodal handling both at the port cluster and at the rail yards. If transshipment costs and delays can be reduced, the corridor could gather additional traffic and fulfill the role it was designed for. The Alameda Corridor has a maximum capacity of more than 150 train trips per day while in 2018 there were about 38 trains per day using the corridor. A plateau appears to be emerging in the growth of traffic, underlining the commercial limits of the Alameda corridor. This is a classic inertia phase in a modal shift as users are reluctant to abandon existing freight distribution practices.