FreightWaves is providing a forum – Market Voices – for a number of market experts.
In this week’s Market Voices piece, I ask the question, “What are the opportunities and challenges for railway dimensional freight service?”
Manufactured freight of industrialized size is a growth market. The products moved are getting larger in dimensions as engineers try to increase the productivity of all kinds of devices.
This includes the girth of the products being moved. Examples include generators, air and heat exchangers and compressors of various shapes and sizes. Think of “stuff that keeps our lights on.”
While there is product miniaturization and the overall weight of machinery and other items is reduced as aluminum or ceramics replace iron and steel goods, the overall mass of industrial products keeps getting bigger.
The marine and aviation modes have adapted their chariots. They are a lot wider. A 1990s containership that had a 105-foot beam can exceed 130 or more feet in 2019.
Trucks? While the standard interstate 18-wheeler might not exceed 9-feet in width, there are trucks escorted on highways across the country that occasionally are specially framed out to double that width. An 18-foot width is allowed with escort restrictions.
Railroad height and width
Rail is a different story.
Globally, most rail freight is of modest train length, modest axle loadings (vertical loading), and a rather low height clearance. It is almost as though engineering adaption after World War II took a “leave of absence” as rail executive thinking focused upon faster passenger train innovations across Europe and Asia.
In contrast, in Canada, the United States, Mexico and parts of North West Australia, longer and heavier train sets and freight wagons were introduced and are now the commercial norm.
Cargo once limited to less than 19-feet in height above the top of the rail now may have a 20- to 21-foot clearance.
Everywhere? No. Economics dictates a core clearance and heavy axle loading route network.
Arguably, between 18 percent and 33 percent of the national track is stack height-capable. It depends on scale and traffic density economics.
The future rail standard for strategic height (now found on selected U.S. corridors) will be set at between 21 and 23 feet.
As to girth?
Strategic rail planners dating back to the post-World War II era missed the width issue. Width has been an absent railroad dimension for more than 60 years.
The nominal rail freight width in business terms is about 10 feet, with a maximum of 11 feet in some regions.
Larger dimensional cargo almost always pays more. Higher rates and slower train service occur when any shipment exceeds a 13-foot width and/or an axle weight of between 167,000 pounds and 200,000 pounds.
Extreme center of gravity issues and lengths of cargo longer than 100 feet also require special train handling.
Why is width a strategic issue?
The obvious reason is the capital cost of relocating rails, bridge sides and tunnels a few feet to the left or right. When railroads inserted heavier rails and stronger ties that process wasn’t extremely physically demanding and was only marginally expensive. Therefore, axle loads and train lengths grew.
Raising bridges or lowering the track elevation under bridges is much more expensive. It didn’t get done. It didn’t even make the short list of capital “needs” on federal or state transportation plans over the past decades.
Shippers interviewed for this article are satisfied at best with railway efforts to accommodate their products of larger mass, but are not happy as the costs to move this type of freight gets more expensive.
Thinking strategically about dimensional rail freight
When members of the Railway Industrial Clearance Association (RICA) hold their 51st annual meeting later this month, here are three issues they might consider.
First, changes to railway market share and their selling approach – railways today probably are responsible for less than one-quarter of the total North American large dimensional traffic revenues. Back in the mid-1970s, railways might have had 40 percent or more of this market.
The railroads do exhibit on the RICA floor. But other modes dominate the floor space.
Rail company BNSF is actually represented by BNSF Logistics. That western railroad has migrated towards a higher skilled specific supply chain selling style since its 2015 acquisition of Transportation Technology Services. It now offers an engineering and logistics solution search for customer’s dimensional cargoes.
Canadian National and Union Pacific are also adopting logistics skills. That’s a positive sign.
However, the rail share in this annual clearance business may be less than $250 million. The overall market size may be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. No one is sure.
Secondly, RICA members might want to revise their national defense strategic route maps (there are several different maps). Existing maps are technically out of date. They do not reflect a practical assessment of three decades of rail industry “line rationalization.”
Multiple routes today are no longer strategic. The “Rio Grande” Denver to Salt Lake corridor is no longer a core Union Pacific asset. It might not be a core lane for BNSF either (BNSF uses trackage rights there).
A vast area of the Northeast Corridor, with about 17 percent of the U.S. population, can’t rely upon high, wide and heavy dimensional rail service.
There is no strategic outlook yet as to what the next wave of branch line sales would do to change future dimensional corridors. Few short lines provide strategic routings.
Figure 1 suggests a reassessment of the Strategic Network. There are operational, engineering and market shift reasons for the red highlighted regions.
RICA members have an opportunity to openly debate what the current map looks like – and what a future map should look like.
Routes with questionable strategic clearance (present or future market functionality) are shown in red. Blue suggests recent highly improved corridors.
Third, optimism about market upside. A group – with strategic and defense logistics backgrounds – could re-examine where rail infrastructure capital might best be selectively spent to create a core of 14- to 16-foot wide, heavy axle-capable and 21-foot or higher strategic clearance corridors. That is something this generation can leave for the next.
How much capital would these upgrades cost? Perhaps $8 billion to $10 billion. That’s not exorbitant; it is only about one-third the cost of modernizing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. It’s about double what was spent recently to widen the Panama Canal.
Rail company dimensional cargo moves are often in the 300 percent range of long-term variable railway costs, and sometimes greater.
To estimate rail dimensional profitability requires specialized costing templates. Few consultants specialize in that kind of railroad analytics.
Would the proposed infrastructure functionality earn enough from future traffic to pay for principal and interest? That is a tough question to answer. On some routes, yes.
Someone ought to address the risk and reward. If not by railroaders, then who?
Most state departments of transportation and the U.S. Department of Transportation do not offer a conceptual plan outlook towards this railway market.
Class 1 railroad pricing – while confidential – suggests an upside. Railroads do publish basic parameters. As a rule of thumb, one can expect to pay minimums of $125 per train mile for dimension train moves. Minimum charges are often for a 200-mile haul – or about $25,000.
Despite the prices charged, rail dimensional service represents a huge cost savings to clearance shippers compared with highway or water route options. Even with high railroad prices, the service is often a better deal than is trucking.
Want to know more?
Railroads offer special marketing analytics. Third-party project cargo companies offer consulting and organization services.
Register for the RICA annual meeting at the Sawgrass Marriott near Jacksonville June 17 to 20th. Technical suggestion – attend the RICA technical workshops – not just the general sessions.