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By Walter Weart
Intermodalism can be traced to the late 19th century, when railroads carried farm equipment and circus wagons on flat cars.
Although the concept was revisited in subsequent years — including a successful operation between Chicago and Milwaukee that began in 1926, and limited service provided by the Chicago Great Western Railroad in 1936 — it wasn’t until shortly after World War II that the “Age of Intermodalism” began.
Railroads’ early attempts to develop intermodal service were thwarted by tight Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulations governing rail rates vs. truckers’ rates. But in 1954, the ICC allowed railroads to engage trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) service. By 1958, more than 32 railroads were offering TOFC, or “piggyback” service, compared with six in 1953. It wasn’t until 1981 — the year after the Staggers Act became law — that the ICC freed intermodal from regulation and provided railroads more flexibility to set lower rates.
“Deregulation was very important for both the intermodal and railroad industry, as it allowed them to price to the market and offer the service customers were looking for,” says Phillip Yeager, founder and chairman of intermodal marketing company the Hub Group Inc., and an intermodal founding father recognized by the University of Denver’s Intermodal Transportation Institute (ITI).
Intermodalism reached another early milestone in 1956, when the steamship Ideal-X sailed from Newark, N.J., to Houston loaded with 58 early-style marine containers. No one at the time recognized the impact marine containerization would have on railroads or intermodal growth, according to the 2006 book “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson.
Pre-1950s intermodal equipment was heavy and cumbersome, but as trailer volume grew, the equipment evolved. Although trailers still were loaded on flat cars, the cars and trailers underwent design changes, such as better hold-down devices and lengthened cars. The 1955 formation of Trailer Train Co. (now, TTX Co.), which led to common trailer designs and provided a free-running intermodal car fleet, helped spur trailer volume growth.
Two decades later, domestic and international containerization took off after the introduction of the double-stack car.
In 1977, the Southern Pacific Railroad, Sea-Land Service Inc. and ACF began developing a prototype car. Four years later, SP began using 42 five-unit double-stack sets. The concept gained a big boost in 1983 when container ship operator American President Lines began using double-stack cars for its LinerTrains.
“Double stacks were important because they lowered cost for the railroads, particularly the eastern lines, and led to the development of dedicated trains,” says Ted Prince, president of Consolidated Chassis Management L.L.C., former vice president of sales and marketing-intermodal and international business unit for Kansas City Southern, and a long-time intermodal industry executive.
Meanwhile, Bi-Modal Corp. in 1978 unveiled a “carless” intermodal concept. The original Mark IV trailer was 48 feet long and featured a set of retractable rail wheels between rubber tires. Over time, the trailer evolved into a near duplicate of conventional highway trailers.
In 1986, Norfolk Southern Corp. formed subsidiary Triple Crown Services Co. to begin offering intermodal service featuring rail/highway trailers called RoadRailers.
Shortly afterward, BNSF Railway Co., Canadian National Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad began to participate in RoadRailer lanes.
“The NS needed a competitive service with minimal terminal expense and was able to get reduced crew sizes, making Triple Crown a very viable service,” says Tom Finkbiner, President of Birch Run Ventures, Inc., who served as NS’ VP of intermodal during Triple Crown’s launch.
Intermodal growth continued through the rest of the 1980s as a number of motor carriers began using piggyback services and domestic containers.
In 1989, trucking legend J.B. Hunt and then-Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway President (and current KCS Chairman and CEO) Mike Haverty launched a door-to-door service that spurred truck/rail intermodalism and proved popular with both truckload and less-than-truckload carriers — so much so, Hunt and Haverty, too, are considered intermodal founding fathers by ITI.
Eventually, several other trucking companies began buying containers that could be moved via rail or highway.
Through the 1980s, the conversion from trailers to containers gained momentum as containerization’s advantages — such as ease of handling, faster loading/unloading, and better protection from weather and tampering — became apparent. By 1998, railroads were transporting more containers than trailers.
Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the Class Is established key intermodal corridors and double-stack container routes, including UP’s Sunset Route, BNSF’s TransCon and CSX Transportation’s Iron Triangle.
In 2002, the Alameda Corridor opened in southern California, providing BNSF and UP a faster intermodal route between Los Angeles-area ports and their downtown yards.
By 2003, intermodal became the Class Is’ largest revenue generator, eclipsing coal.
Along with the invention of the airplane and diesel engine, intermodalism is one the three most important transportation innovations of the 20th century, says Prince.
Intermodal’s advent should be considered just as important to the rail industry as the conversion from steam to diesel locomotives, he says.
— Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.