The Chicago area is massive and complex for rail operations and represents the largest inland intermodal facility in the United States, with rail facilities handling 6.45 million lifts in 2018. The oldest intermodal facilities are located in manufacturing districts close to the central business district (also known as the “loop”), many of which are conversions of conventional facilities that took place in the 1980s. Terminals located further away are purposefully designed to handle containers and have a much larger footprint. For example, the Joliet area contains two of the world’s largest intermodal rail facilities; Logistics Park Chicago (owned and operated by BNSF Railroad) and Global IV (owned and operated by Union Pacific Railroad). Those facilities have been designed as logistics zones where major distribution centers are located adjacent to the rail facilities.
In addition to having a strong industrial, manufacturing, and distribution base, which generates and attracts container moves, the Chicago area is also a major transmodal market between six Class I rail carriers. Transmodal rail operations, which are operations that move containers between two rail terminals, rely on two strategies:
- The first strategy involves trucking containers from one rail terminal to another (“rubber wheel” transmodal operations); be it within the same facility or between nearby facilities. This move requires a chassis moving from a rail terminal operated by a rail company to another operated by a different rail company.
- The second strategy is a standard rail interchange (“steel wheel” transmodal operation) that switches railcars between different terminals, often using an intermediate rail service specializing in this sole task (a switch carrier). This can take between 24 and 48 hours or longer, depending on the corridor and the type of railcar. The Belt Railway Company of Chicago (BRC) is the largest switch carrier in the United States and allows to switch rail equipment between the major Class I operators in the Chicago area and handles about 8,500 rail cars per day.
Intermodal container terminals have three major configurations:
- Grounded terminal operations. Rail terminals where containers are stacked on the terminal yard (on the ground, which is a paved area). Moving containers requires equipment such as rubber-tired gantries (RTG) and reach stackers. 3 to 5 containers can be stacked, depending if they are full or empty. Operations at these terminals require two moves per handled container; from ship/train to ground and from ground to chassis.
- Wheeled terminal operations. Rail terminals where containers are stored in the yard on chassis parked in parallel. The containers are usually transferred with one lift (train to chassis) but require fleets of chassis and more land on which to store them.
- Hybrid terminal operations. Rail terminals that offer a combination of both grounded and wheeled operations, which is less common. It could also be the outcome of a terminal running out of chassis and temporarily storing excess containers on the ground.