Note: Modeled after the Bedford Yard in Chicago, owned by CSX. In this case the classification yard is owned by the Belt Railway Company.
Three major components interact in intermodal terminal operations; rail track operations, storage yard operations, and gate operations. The purpose is to ensure that each operation interacts efficiently with the other since a delay with one operation will impact the others. For instance, a problem with storage yard operations will create delays both at the rail track and gate operations and have an impact on the terminal productivity and the quality of its services. An intermodal rail container terminal is commonly composed of the following elements, each performing a specific function:
- Intermodal yard. The core of the terminal where unit trains are loaded and unloaded by cranes (rubber-tired gantries) or lifts (side-loaders). They can be more than 2 km in length due to the large size of container unit trains (100 cars). In many cases, namely when the yard is of an older design, unit trains are broken down into two or more parts, which leaves a midway crossing for the circulation of chassis within the yard (otherwise, movements between the storage area and unit trains would be much longer). Containers are brought trackside or to the storage area by hostlers. While older generations of intermodal yards (or those with small volume) worked on a one-to-one basis (one trackside space available for loading or unloading for each car) using reach stackers, new intermodal yards tend to operate on a two-to-one basis (one trackside space for loading and one trackside space for unloading). Higher intensity terminals are operated with rail-mounted gantry cranes able to straddle over several tracks (up to about 8) and are able to use track-side stack piles; therefore part of the storage area is within the intermodal yard.
- Storage area. Acts as a buffer between the road system (drayage) and the intermodal yard. It often covers an area similar in size to the intermodal yard, as modern rail intermodal yards are heavy consumers of space. Storage in the intermodal yard can be grounded where containers are stored by stacking them upon one another, or wheeled with containers stored on chassis. In wheeled terminals, which are common in North America, containers are directly transferred to a chassis waiting to be picked up for delivery. Thus the chassis is an active element of terminal operations. Empties are commonly kept in a specific part of the yard and often as an off-site empty container depot. In wheeled terminals to optimize truck pick up and delivery, container/chassis pairs are often parked at an angle of 60 degrees so they can be stored closer to one another (fishbone parking). In contrast, a truck can easily back up for delivery or pick up. On terminals that are more recent and thus have more space available, container/chassis pairs are parked in a parallel fashion to facilitate drayage to and from the intermodal yard. There are also some storage areas for reefers (refrigerated containers) with power outlets, but this account for a small amount of the total storage capacity; 1 to 5%. Users are commonly given a dwell time of 48 hours where their cargo is stored at the terminal at no charge, which gives enough time for outbound loads to be assembled or for customers to prepare for the pick up of their inbound cargo once they have been notified of its arrival at the terminal.
- Classification yard. Can be present if the terminal has been upgraded from a regular freight to a container terminal, but for most modern intermodal rail terminals the classification yard will be absent. Its function is mainly related to the assembly and break down of freight trains carrying other types of cargo. This is necessary because each rail car can be bound to a different destination and can be shunted on several occasions, which takes place at the origin, destination, or at an intermediary location (such as Chicago or North Platte). For intermodal operations shutting is less prevalent because it is much easier to allocate and position containers to well cars than to shunt the well cars. Thus classification yards are often operated independently from the intermodal yard and have a tendency to be located at different locations.
- Gate. This is where the truck driver presents proper documentation (bill of lading) for pick up or delivery. Most of the inspection is done remotely with cameras and intercom systems where an operator can remotely see the container number carried by a truck, and verify if it corresponds to the bill of lading. If international cargo is concerned, then it must have been first cleared by customs. To simplify matters and increase throughput, there are often separate entry and exit gates and dedicated lanes for empties or chassis returns.
- Chassis storage. Area where empty chassis are stored while waiting to be allocated to a truck or a holster. Some are within the terminal, while others are in nearby chassis pools. Chassis equipment is very important as it essentially represents the interface between rail and truck transportation. In the majority of intermodal terminals around the world, truck drivers use their own chassis. At the same time, the American model usually relies on chassis pools located in the vicinity of intermodal terminals.
- Repair/maintenance. Area where regular maintenance activities of the terminal’s heavy equipment are performed.
A real-world example of a large-scale intermodal terminal is the BNSF Logistics Park Terminal, near Chicago.