Rail Service and Intermodal Continues to Struggle


Fall in Decorah IA2014/10/22 Over the weekend, I drove to my hometown, Decorah Iowa. It seemed that the fall leaves were brighter than I’ve seen in years. Yet, we all know those bright colors signal an end to autumn and the onset of the snowy winter months.

The warm, bright weekend made hitting the trails that had once been railroad beds something we couldn’t pass up. The railroad trails that had previously been active routes to transport goods got me thinking beyond the chill of winter to the larger rail service situation.

It turns out that as we go from autumn to winter, the problems go well beyond winter storms. Rail service, including intermodal, is struggling.

Struggling from:

  • Increased volumes
  • Damaged infrastructure
  • Proposed restrictions on speeds

And these are not situations that are isolated to a region. It is a connected system that brings a problem from the west coast home to roost in the east or a situation in the Chicago to bear down on the entire nation. It is also not just limited to rail. Other transportation options feel the impact.

According to the Association of American Railroads, volume has increased 4.8% in the week ended Oct. 11 compared with the same week last year.

We have all seen the boom in North Dakota, the results of using new methods to extract oil from the ground. “The addition of unit trains, primarily crude oil trains between North Dakota and the East Coast, has exacerbated the problem. There is no schedule for these trains, which appear frequently but at random times and intervals, so they’re difficult to plan for. When one of these trains arrives in Chicago and the connecting road doesn’t have a fresh crew available, the train sits — all 100 cars and a mile long, taking up critical track space.”

This is at a time when the system has not fully recovered from the damage of last winter.

The system is also facing a government proposal to slow trains hauling crude oil.

At times we all get stuck in a limited view and only see what is right outside our window. So for some of us, when we escape to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida to hide from the snow, we lose sight that we are connected and impacted to the rest of the country far beyond what we see out that window.

For example, JOC.com, reports that “The epicenter of the problem lies in Chicago.”  When a storm hits Illinois, some think the problem is isolated to the Windy City and its surrounding areas. But it is not. According to JOC.com, “25 percent of rail traffic touches the Windy City. Recent operations into Chicago have bogged down severely, with trains stacking up on the approaches to town like trucks waiting at a toll booth.  The situation east of Chicago has become so bad that Amtrak at one point elected to turn around the New York-Chicago Lake Shore Limited in Toledo, Ohio, busing the passengers the rest of the way, because Amtrak couldn’t get its supposedly high-priority passenger train through the mess.”

It’s time to look beyond what is just outside our window. If we are aware of the factors that impact our supply chain, we have improved our ability to plan and budget to meet business goals.