By: Elyse Discher – Intermodal Product Manager
Those of us who live and work in Northeast Wisconsin are accustomed to seeing Canadian National freight trains and Wisconsin Central box cars in the area. But, what we haven’t seen for a number of years are intermodal containers moving into, or out of the area via rail.
Intermodal is a hybrid product offering; shipments are loaded into a 53’ container—similar to a dry van box, but removable from its chassis.
The load is moved by truck to an Intermodal hub or rail yard, where it is lifted onto a container train. The majority of its journey takes place on the rail, before a short distance move over the road from the destination rail yard to the consignee. Intermodal has grown significantly over the past few years, due to major rail investments in infrastructure, an inherent cost advantage and fuel savings compared to over the road truckload, and the driver capacity constraints facing the trucking industry.
Currently, the nearest Intermodal rail yards to NE Wisconsin are in the Chicago area. Nearly all Intermodal loads in and out of NE Wisconsin move down the highway to Chicago before getting on a train.
Now one group is trying to change that.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) recently participated in a Transportation Summit at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, where expanding Wisconsin’s rail service and the possibility of a NE Wisconsin Intermodal facility were discussed. Congressman Reid Ribble was in attendance, as was Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary, Mark Gottlieb.
WMC suggested a number of benefits of expanding Wisconsin’s rail system. Among them were facilitating economic expansion, offsetting the cost of fuel, and issues such as an aging driver population, hours of service and other regulations which contribute to trucking capacity constraints. WMC believes Wisconsin must re-evaluate its current rail service offering.
There were two rail moves initially highlighted as possibly benefiting from an expansion of rail service. Raw forest materials from Northern Wisconsin would be an ideal commodity for rail shipment. Log trucks that currently haul this freight are not fuel efficient. Adding a railhead to Northern Wisconsin would create an opportunity for log trucks to haul forest materials a much shorter distance, with the bulk of the journey via rail. Special rail cars are required to haul logs, and WMC is currently applying for a Tiger Grant in order to purchase a log car fleet.
The second rail service expansion that WMC is promoting is a NE Wisconsin Intermodal ramp. This proposed ramp would handle 20-25 inbound and outbound loads per day and would be operated by a third party. Rail service would be supplied by the Canadian National Railway.
The major obstacles to opening a NE Wisconsin Intermodal ramp are the identification of anchor shippers, and the fact that Chicago currently has a very efficient rail interchange that services most of the country. The WMC is currently in discussion with shippers to determine what freight volumes could be committed to such a facility.
So, will Intermodal come back to NE Wisconsin?
Right now the future looks questionable. With the nation’s largest rail hubs in Chicago, there would appear to be little justification for setting up an Intermodal facility here. However, as fuel costs rise, and the driver population continues to dwindle, the case for a nearby rail hub may become stronger, and the economics may support it. Like much in the world of transportation, the future of the project hangs on how the driver capacity shortage plays out, and how the cost equation changes.