Ownership of North American Intermodal Rail Terminals

Ownership of North American Intermodal Rail Terminals 2015

The United States alone has about 2,270 rail facilities rail performing some form of intermodalism by being able to move freight from rail to trucks. Although this appears to be a large number, only about 20% of these facilities handle a significant intermodal volume, and less than 10% are true intermodal container terminals. The rest are local facilities fulfilling specific industrial, resources, or manufacturing needs for bulk and break-bulk shipments. Thus, the North American system of operational intermodal rail terminals handling COFC and TOFC traffic accounts for over 200 facilities covering major inland markets. All are privately owned and operated. The great majority are intermodal terminals accessible by truck only. Still, about 20 of them are on-dock or near-dock rail facilities enabling them to move containers from the port to the hinterland directly.

Most intermodal terminals are clustered around major maritime gateways (e.g. Los Angeles, New York) and intermediary locations having strong inland logistical activities and inland ports (Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City). The location of intermodal rail terminals is a balancing act between gateway location, market density, underlining, and complementarity with trucking. Despite a system controlled by only seven major operators (Class I rail lines), the great majority of inland load centers are serviced by a least two operators, which confers a level of competitiveness and offers options for regional shippers.

For the western system, most load centers are serviced by both BSNF and UP, while for the eastern system, most load centers are serviced by both UP and CSX. A similar pattern is observed for the Canadian system with CN and CP. There are, however, a few notable exceptions serviced by only one intermodal terminal and with no nearby competitors, such as Halifax (CN), Salt Lake City (UP), Billings (BNSF), Albuquerque (BNSF), Amarillo (BNSF), and Prince Rupert (CN). On the opposite range of the spectrum, several locations, particularly at the interface between regional systems, have three or more rail operators (Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Dallas-Fort Worth, New Orleans, and Atlanta). Thus, they are particularly prone to a more competitive inland terminal offering shipping options to both the east and the west coasts.

Many railways also offer the option to deliver and collect intermodal cargo from depots, also known as ‘paper ramps’. This gives their customers additional market area coverage and options since the whole service is technically considered a rail haulage contract. At the same time, some segments include road haulage between a depot and an intermodal yard. Therefore, opportunities are available to reduce gate congestion at the intermodal yard while consolidating and synchronizing haulage.