September 14, 2021 1:15 PM, EDT

Intermodal Needs Greater Cooperation to Remove Bottlenecks

Barbara Melvin (from left), Mark McKendry and Stephanie Kuntzman Barbara Melvin (from left), Mark McKendry and Stephanie Kuntzman by Jerry Hirsch for Transport Topics

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — Surging U.S. import demand combined with years of underinvestment have thrown intermodal shipping so far out of balance that it will take years to return to an equilibrium the industry considered normal, an expert panel told attendees at the Intermodal Association of North America’s Intermodal Expo.

Moreover, the varied segments of the industry — shipping, rail, ports and drayage — will have to join together to solve the extreme capacity problems plaguing the business, the panelists said Sept. 13.

Abnormal has become the new normal, said Shelli Austin, president of InTek Freight & Logistics and the panel’s moderator.

MORE FROM IANA: Massive Imbalances Plague Intermodal Industry

Mark McKendry

Mark McKendry by Jerry Hirsch for Transport Topics

“We thought things were going to come back to normal. And I really don’t think that there is going to be a normal,” Austin said.

The problems hampering the industry are likely to linger without some dramatic movement such as significant consolidation or the threat of federal regulation, said Mark McKendry, regional vice president of intermodal at NFI Industries.

“Without fear of regulation, I don’t know what will motivate all stakeholders to be at the table,” McKendry said.

Cooperation should start by having the industry create a unified strategy for managing the chassis trucks use to carry containers, he said.

There’s a nationwide chassis shortage, and that’s hampering the movement of containers in and out of ports, adding to bottlenecks caused by a lack of drivers and storage facilities for both packed and empty containers, the panelists said.

Barbara Melvin

Barbara Melvin by Jerry Hirsch for Transport Topics

Adding to the problem is a lack of chassis standardization among rail and shipping lines, so drivers might not have the right equipment to pick up a specific container.

Elsewhere, industry players need to look at how they can create efficiencies and expand operations, said Barbara Melvin, chief operating officer at South Carolina Ports Authority.

“We have really got to know how to utilize infrastructure 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Melvin said.

But that means warehouse providers and motor carriers must be responsive to those types of hours and shifts if ports keep their gates open to relieve backlogs, she said.

More inland storage also could help alleviate pressure on port facilities, Melvin said.

For now, things are helter-skelter.

“This is like whack-a-mole,” Melvin said. “You try to make one customer happy one day, and you address somebody else the next day. And you still have two that are yelling.”

BNSF Railway is making investments in staffing and infrastructure to expand capacity, said Stephanie Kuntzman, the railway’s general director of domestic intermodal.

“We’ve increased the manpower between 15 and 35%, depending upon the facility. And we’re still focused on bringing on manpower at locations where we need more like Southern California and Chicago,” Kuntzman said.

Stephanie Kuntzman

Stephanie Kuntzman by Jerry Hirsch for Transport Topics.

“We are looking to take creative and aggressive measures in any way that we can to increase the productivity and fluidity within our terminals,” she said.

For example, Kuntzman said the railway reopened a facility in Marion, Ark., to take pressure off operations in the Memphis, Tenn., area.

The South Carolina Ports Authority also is looking at unconventional ways to add capacity. Melvin said research was done to consider using barges to move containers to inland storage areas.

The port is also creating its own chassis pool to give it more control over equipment, she said. The move is a response to all the problems with poor chassis maintenance and repair issues it is seeing in the industry now.

“You got to have a chassis. You can’t move a container without it,” Melvin said.

Finally, there is the driver issue, the panelists said. Drayage is losing drivers to other trucking segments and other industries as the job becomes more frustrating.

“It comes down to money for drivers in many respects,” McKendry said. “If we get the pay right, you know, we’ll have a little more flexibility.”

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