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August 6, 2007 7:45 AM, EDT

UPS, BNSF Cooperate to Speed Shipments By Loading Trailers on Flatcars Near Chicago

By Jonathan S. Reiskin, Associate News Editor

This story appears in the August 6 print edition of Transport Topics.

More than a million packages a day in metropolitan Chicago have an ideal commute. They roll through the back gate of the UPS Inc. facility here and into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard next door — without traveling on a public street — so they can catch a train for such places as Kansas City, Denver or California.
On the same parcel of land wedged between Interstate 294 and the Des Plaines River, two of the largest players in truck-rail intermodal transportation combine to move hundreds of trailers filled with package freight every business day. The BNSF Railway Co. site specializes in trailers on flatcars, or TOFC, and also fills its premium-service trains with trailers from less-than-truckload and truckload carriers, as well as other shippers.
“We’re built for speed here,” said Alan Copeland, the rail hub’s senior manager for operations, who said his people can strip a typical train with 130 truck trailers in 1½ hours.
Each loaded trailer weighs from 45,000 to 65,000 pounds, he said, and, “We have to know the goals for each trailer.”
The focus on speed is essential for UPS.
“We hold the railroads’ feet to the fire,” said Mike Johl, manager of community relations for UPS’ Chicago Area Consolidation Hub, or CACH.
“We’re looking for promptness, plus-or-minus a few minutes. If a train is due at 10 a.m. but doesn’t get here until 3 p.m., we’ve got 1,200 to 1,300 people with nothing to do,” Johl said.
Copeland said BNSF schedules the premium trains for 48-hour runs between Chicago and various West Coast locations — or half of the four days it takes for trains from Los Angeles or Long Beach to make it into nearby Elwood, Ill., carrying stackable containers that traveled east across the Pacific Ocean (Part I, 7-30, p. 1).
While BNSF caps the speed of all trains at 70 miles per hour, Copeland said the intermodal trains get first choice on the right to run. If an intermodal premium train is trapped behind a slower-moving train, the slow vehicle has to pull off onto a side track and let the premium intermodal go ahead.
Johl said he has ridden on passenger trains that have been moved onto the sidings.
“My friends don’t like it, and it is an inconvenience, but hey, this is my bread and butter,” Johl said.
CACH opened in 1995 on a site that was once a Fisher Body stamping plant for Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles and is jaw-dropping in scope. Sixty-five miles of conveyor belts whisk parcels through the 1.5 million-square-foot facility at 500 feet per minute (5.7 mph). While 2,700 inbound trailers a day are routed to 126 doors, there are more than 1,000 outbound doors.
The day before Transport Topics visited, 7,000 CACH employees handled 1.45 million packages — about 10% of UPS’ total daily domestic parcel volume. Full capacity during the pre-Christmas rush is 2.1 million packages a day, Johl said, adding that CACH is UPS’ largest terminal.
On a typical day, CACH sends out about 1,000 trailers to the four largest U.S. railroads for intermodal shipping, with 700 to 800 going to BNSF. The other three railroads are Union Pacific, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.
In spite of its enormousness, the reasons for CACH are easily understood.
First, Chicago is appealing for its central location. “For transportation, Chicago is Mecca,” Johl said, echoing the words of Carl Sandburg. In his 1916 poem “Chicago,” Sandburg referred to the “stormy, husky, brawling city of the big shoulders” as a “player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler.”
Second, the work used to be spread among a number of smaller Chicago-area terminals, but building CACH allowed UPS to save a step in operating its network for shipping.
“Because the parcels go through fewer hubs, it reduces the chance for human error,” said Johl. “Yes, our people are good, but you always want to reduce the chance of error.”
UPS, the largest carrier on the Transport Topics 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers, also is the largest single user of domestic intermodal shipping. On the rail side, BNSF does more business in intermodal than any of its U.S. competitors.
UPS is attentive to detail at CACH on even the most mundane level. While the facility does not use the familiar brown package cars that make deliveries around town, the employees do pull full-size and 28-foot pup trailers around the 80-acre site with a fleet of yard tractors.
The tractors are equipped with electromagnets that hang from the front bumpers and pick up nails and screws before they can puncture tires.
On a grander scale, the corporation asked the state of Illinois to build a four-way public interchange off I-294, the Tri-State Tollway, to improve truck access for UPS and BNSF. The state did so, and UPS provided land and more than $3 million toward the roughly $11 million cost.
On the BNSF side of the fence, Copeland said he appreciates the magnetized UPS yard tractors keeping his grounds clean and that the I-294 interchange almost on top of him is a great selling point for the other trucking companies that bring him trailers.
As a visitor drives through the yard — you’re not allowed to walk it — UPS trailers dominate, but less-than-truckload carriers ABF Freight System, Roadway Express and Yellow Transportation collectively account for 35% of the lifts, or as many as UPS alone.
Trailers from truckload carriers J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Schneider National are also well represented, as are refrigerated carriers Marten Transport Ltd. and Stevens Transport. They comprise a large part of the final 30% of BNSF traffic here.
The towering MiJack cranes that heft the trailers on and off the flatcars can pick them up in any one of three ways. Most trailers, including those of UPS, are grabbed around the sides and lifted from underneath.
J.B. Hunt’s trailers have holes near the top but on the sides. The cranes grab by inserting pins into those holes.
Containers attached to chassis that ride like trailers often have holes on the top. In those cases, the cranes insert an attachment like a corkscrew to grab those boxes.
Copeland said trains usually stay in his yard for about three hours, while trailers might dwell for close to 24 hours, although some depart the yard directly from trackside.
BNSF handles 12 outbound and 15 inbound trains a day here usually — seven days a week.
A railroad man since 1991, Copeland compared Hodgkins with some of his other assignments for BNSF:
“It’s much faster here. Everything is time-sensitive. In other yards, you work on building big trains, but here it’s a matter of service.
“We have to meet cut-off times, and sometimes we don’t know if a trailer’s coming until it’s at the gate.”
To that extent, he said, BNSF-Hodgkins is more like a city bus than an airline — if a tractor with a trailer shows up and the train has room, BNSF will take it. Shippers do not have to book two weeks ahead, although Copeland did not wish to discourage planning far in advance.
There is, however, a rating of priority for all trailers, and those with the lowest rating can get bumped if there are more cars than capacity to haul them.
“If you show up at the gate and can make a trip plan, I can cut it really close, as long as we don’t exceed the train’s limits,” he said.