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Back in the 90s, I had the privilege of leading Canada’s largest Intermodal Marketing Company. Since that time, I have been a big supporter of this service. In our consulting work with shippers, we are often struck by the fact that this service remains undervalued and underutilized. The purpose of this blog is to challenge shippers to revisit and rethink their company’s intermodal activity and help them craft an effective plan within their supply chain strategy.

While intermodal service provides various benefits, the top advantage is that on longer lengths of haul (i.e. over 1000 miles), it typically costs less than over the road truckload service. While transit times are longer in some (but not all) instances, the economies of moving multiple containers on an intermodal train usually provide shippers with a cost advantage. When compared to truck transport, lower fuel surcharges and less exposure to driver shortages are also beneficial.

Over the past decade, all of the class 1 railroads in North America have invested heavily in their Intermodal terminal network and service offerings. As an example, a few years ago, CN Rail built a rail facility in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the closest North American port to Asia. That port allows for the movement of intermodal containers on a single-line CN train from Prince Rupert across Canada or through Chicago as far south as New Orleans, LA. Here are a few steps to consider in preparing an effective intermodal strategy.

Step 1 – Revisit your vendor and customer service requirements

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The two previous blogs in this series highlighted the critical role that the rails play in transporting crude oil. They also noted that the surge in derailments is raising serious questions about the safety of using rail transportation. In addition, as a result the large drop in the price per barrel, below the estimated breakeven cost level, this raises concerns about the ongoing economic viability of moving crude oil by rail. This blog will focus on what can be done to improve rail safety and the economics of rail transportation.

Improve the Safety of Rail Transportation

The key stakeholders on this issue are tank car manufacturers, energy producers, railroads and governments. They each have a responsibility to protect the safety of the public. It should be pointed out that Lac Megantic, Quebec, the site of the worst crude oil rail disaster, has a population of less than 6000 people. There were 47 people who perished in that rail disaster and the cost to clean up and rebuild the downtown where the train hit is projected to be $400 million. In other words, if a disaster of this nature was to hit a mid-size or major city, the cost in lives and dollars could be of an extraordinary magnitude. Since these large stakeholders collectively are deriving billions of dollars in revenue, profits and taxes from this sector, they have a major responsibility to address the safety issue. The following is a summary of what has been done, how these changes are working out and what still needs to be done.

Change the Composition of the Oil

Under regulations adopted last year and to be put into effect in April, oil companies in North Dakota will have to remove volatile gases such as propane from their crude before pumping it into a rail car. This is estimated to add another 10 cents a barrel to the cost. In April, a regulation in North Dakota requires oil to be kept at a vapor pressure below 13.7 pounds per square inch goes into effect. This process known as conditioning, which companies can use to meet that standard, is the “bare minimum” step to lower volatility.

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The business case for shipping crude oil by rail was outlined in the previous blog. The rapid growth in the production of oil in Canada and the United States coupled with the flexibility and efficiency of shipping crude oil by rail has seen the volumes moving via this mode increase 5000 percent growth rate over the past 5 years. Crude oil by rail has grown from almost zero to eleven percent of the revenue of the class 1 railroads during this period. Two things have had a dramatic impact on this business model. They are the rapid and huge drop in the price of a barrel of oil and the level of derailments that have made this a major safety hazard. This blog will focus on the current economics of moving oil by rail. 

The Cost of Producing Crude Oil

The cost required to lift crude oil and maintain oil wells, equipment, and facilities is called production cost or lifting cost. A Market Realist article published in January 2015 draws information from the EIA’s (Energy Information Administration) 2009 report that shows the production cost of crude oil was ~$12 per barrel for the United States and ~$10 per barrel for the Middle East. But recent consensus says these costs could range from $20 to $25 per barrel.

The Cost of Shipping Crude Oil by Rail

The cost to transport a barrel of crude oil ranges between $10 and $20 depending on the origin and destination locations. It must be kept in mind that some of the major rails in the U.S. and Canada have been adding a $1000 surcharge per tanker car in cases where old DOT-111 cars are used. This adds about $1.50 to the per barrel cost. An article published in the February 2 Toronto Globe & Mail stated that recent developments are casting doubt on the business case for shipping crude oil by rail. Since rail costs are about double the cost of shipping via pipeline, “it is unclear if high costs make shipping by rail a money-making mode of transport for producers.” It should be noted that the above-mentioned breakeven analysis doesn’t reflect the additional costs that will come from the necessary upgrades to improve rail safety (as outlined in the next blog). These improvements are expected to add billions of dollars to shipping costs.

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Best Practices in Intermodal Transportation

Posted by on in Intermodal

The term intermodal refers to moving a container or trailer by more than one mode of transportation—generally truck plus rail, ocean plus rail, ocean plus truck, or all three modes. Some recent freight industry trends—such as long-haul trucking capacity shortages, higher fuel costs, and a drive to reduce environmental impact—have sparked new interest in intermodal, especially pairing truck and rail as an alternative to over-the-road (OTR) trucking for domestic moves. For many years, shippers were reluctant to use Intermodal service. Memories of poor service, of containers or trailers stuck in a rail yard, coupled with the speed and flexibility of using over the road service on shorter distances, inhibited intermodal growth. That seems to be changing.

The American Association of Railroads is reporting record intermodal volumes in some months. Truck capacity and driver shortages, the investments made by the major railways on many key business corridors, the increasing use of Intermodal long haul service by truckers, along with improved technology are fueling a so-called “rail renaissance.” "Domestic intermodal is growing much faster than almost any other area of the U.S. economy or industry," says Scott Webb, senior vice president at NFI Intermodal, a carrier based in Cherry Hill, N.J.

What are some Best Practices that shippers and Logistics Service Providers can follow to take advantage of Intermodal service? Here are a few tips.

1. Educate yourself on how Intermodal service can benefit your company

Identify the railroads, drayage companies and IMCs (Intermodal Marketing Companies) that service your lanes of traffic. Learn about chassis, trailers and containers and the size and number of the containers (e.g. 20 foot, 40 foot and/or 53 foot) available in your area. Educate yourself on the head haul and back haul requirements of the intermodal providers serving your traffic corridors. Compare the transit times and costs against the over the road options across all lanes. Find out about their closest rail terminal and its hours of operation. Examine the length of haul on your major lanes and the hours of service it will take a driver to move your loads. Will an OTR driver hit the maximum hours of service in a day on some key corridors and then have to take a ”time out?” Would you be able to obtain essentially the same transit time by switching to intermodal service that can be competitive on lanes as short as 450 miles? If you are an import/export shipper, learn more about the locations of ports that serve your major locations. Meet with representatives of these companies, take some terminal tours and review your operational requirements with them. Find out what they can do for you.

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Last week the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals released its 24th annual State of Logistics Report. Last year, business logistics costs were once again 8.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the same level they hit in 2011, the new report says. That means freight logistics was growing at about the same rate as the GDP. Inventory carrying costs and transportation costs rose "quite modestly" in 2012, said the report's author Rosalyn Wilson. Year-over-year, inventory carrying costs (interest, taxes/obsolescence/depreciation/insurance, and warehousing) increased 4% y/y as inventory levels climbed to a new peak. Meanwhile, transportation costs were up 3% y/y predominantly from an increase of 2.9% in overall truck transportation costs.

This "new normal" is characterized by slow growth (GDP growth of 2.5% to 4.0%), higher unemployment, slower job creation (which will primarily be filled by part-time workers due to higher healthcare costs), increased productivity of the current workforce from investment in machinery/technology (and not human capital), and a less reliable or predictable freight service (as volumes rise but capacity does not increase fast enough to meet demand). Wilson noted that slow growth and lackluster job creation has caused the global economy to wallow in mixed levels of recovery. "This month will mark the fourth year of recovery after the Great Recession, and you're probably thinking that here has not been much to celebrate," said Wilson. "Is it time to ask, 'Is this the new normal?'"

For logisticians, the "new normal" means less predictable and less reliable freight services as volumes rise but capacity does not. In areas such as ocean transport, Wilson said, this can mean slower transit times. "I do believe the economy and logistics sector will slowly regain sustainable momentum, but that we'll still experience unevenness in growth rates," Wilson predicted.

For cutting-edge logistics managers, however, the current environment also means great opportunities to secure increasingly tight capacity in an era of shrewd rate bargaining. This is partly because the trucking industry, in particular, is facing a lid on capacity because of higher qualifications for drivers while top carriers are becoming increasingly selective in their choice of customers and in the allocation of their assets.

"Truck capacity is still walking a fine line—few shortages, but industry-high utilization rates," Wilson explained. Truckload capacity continues to remain stagnant (with the majority of new equipment orders for replacement or dedicated fleets and the copious amount of truckload capacity sapping regulations coming down the pipeline) and the assumption that freight demand will continue to modestly increase (as the economy continues to muddle along at low single digit GDP growth in combination with population growth), a less predictable and less reliable freight market is developing (as described in the "new normal").

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Pierre Berton, the late, famous Canadian author noted in his book, “The Last Spike,” that CP Rail has held a respected place in the country’s history.  He wrote that “no other private company, with the single exception of Hudson’s Bay Company, has had such an influence on the destinies of the nation.” For most of the past 15 years, CP Rail faced stiff competition from CN Rail as Paul Tellier and Hunter Harrison led the company’s move from a bloated government run enterprise to a highly profitable public company.  In fact CN’s operating ratio of 61.3 is not only the best among the major North American railroads, it is one of the best of any company in the transportation industry.

The fact that CP Rail lagged so far behind CN Rail and the other class 1 railways in North America led the activist investor Bill Ackman, of Pershing Square Capital, to launch his “palace revolt” proxy battle that resulted in the replacement of CP’s former President with Hunter Harrison, whom he brought out of retirement to drive the railway’s profit improvement.

As we pass through the last quarter of this year, Canada’s two largest railroads are heading down separate tracks.  With an operating ratio is the low 80’s, Mr. Harrison has embarked on a series of actions to reduce costs through improved asset utilization.  This is another way of saying that CP Rail is planning to move its equipment more quickly and efficiently, to become Canada’s second “precision” railroad.   It is seeking to accomplish this by undertaking a series of initiatives.  These include:

  • Building trains at CP’s intermodal terminal in Vancouver with blocks of cars for long haul destinations. This reduces stops and streamlines connections.
  • Increasing average train lengths to 7,000 to 12,000 feet
  • Speeding up the fueling of trains
  • Improving daily scheduling
  • Investing $1.2 billion in 2012 and $1 billion in 2013 on key infrastructure projects
  • Working with customers at both ends to improve coordination

The net result of these changes is that CP Rail now provides 4 day transit times between Vancouver and Chicago and Toronto.  These changes represent half of the transcontinental trains that CP launches daily across its network.  Mr. Harrison is not expecting an overnight drop in the company’s operating ratio.  He told Bloomberg News that he is targeting about 65 percent in the next four years.

Shippers appear to be taking notice of improved service on both major Canadian railways. 

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