What if a giant bird could grab ocean containers with its oversized talons and fly them out of a congested port to a location several miles away — perhaps an intermodal rail terminal or less congested truck depot — so that not all the trucks shuttling containers had to travel the same roads or line up at the same container terminal gates to drop off and pick up cargo.
That is more or less the vision behind EagleRail Container Logistics, a Chicago-based startup that has proposed building systems that would shuttle containers to and from off-dock locations near ports using container carriers that would travel along elevated rails with containers suspended below them.
Mike Wychocki, the chief executive officer of EagleRail, said his company has held discussions about its system with 40 ports in 17 countries and that ports in six countries have said they want to push forward with plans. While not willing to disclose which ports he is negotiating with, he said they are in Brazil, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, China and an unnamed country in the Middle East.
The news website DeshGujarat said a memorandum of understanding with EagleRail for setting up a “smart, intelligent container-handling system across various ports in Gujarat” was signed by India’s Gujarat Marine Board in January “with an intended investment” of about $150 million.
While the company has done a lot of work with simulation software, Wychocki said ports want to see how the system performs on a test kilometer of the system before moving forward.
“We hope to break ground right around January 2020,” he added.
Containers could be transported at about 20 miles per hour with carriers that Wychocki described as a combination between an upside down bomb cart (the specialized trailers that trucks use to move containers around many container terminals) and the spreader from a container crane.
Containers would be lifted up to the shuttle carrier where pins would lock into the corner castings of the container as they do when being moved by container crane or top loader. Each shuttle carrier would be equipped with eight electric motors — two at each corner — and run along the rail with four wheels.
Wychocki said the system will use proven technology and that the company has entered into an agreement with China’s Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. (ZMPC) to be a “strategic development partner.” ZPMC is the largest manufacturer of ship-to-shore container cranes in the world and makes a wide variety of other port equipment. Wychocki noted that EagleRail’s product would likely interface with ZPMC equipment at some ports.
EagleRail’s product has some similarities to other innovative proposals moving containers in and out of ports such as those of Freight Shuttle and Grid Logistics. There also have been proposals for moving containers or pallet loads of cargo using magnetic levitation or hyperloop technology.
Wychocki believes some of these proposals were “pushing a technology before they were trying to solve a problem” or were unable to get funding.
He also believes the time was not ripe for such solutions because “the market always could find more trucks and there was always road capacity.”
The appearance of mega-containerships at more ports is changing that, he said.
“Now you have the mega-ships causing bunching (of containers), you have road congestion, you have the driver shortage.”
He said ports and railroads can “no longer turn a blind eye” to congestion and that governments do not want more trucks on the road. He said even a technology like self-driving trucks would not remove trucks from port roads.
He believes his company offers a better, cheaper technology for moving containers.
“Our elevator pitch is we want to do with a 60,000-pound box, what an Amazon warehouse does with a 60-pound box — robotically lift it up, click it to a rail, shuttle it out and put it back down. There is not a whole lot of expensive technology there, it is just repurposing existing technology.”
He said the EagleRail system would be good for moving containers up to about 10 miles, moving containers between container terminals and, for example, rail yards or intermodal hubs.
It also could be used to transport containers from ships docked at deep-sea jetties or moving containers to a stacking area away from the docks.
He said at a number of ports his company has analyzed it has found “50 percent to 60 percent of dray traffic tends to go to one or two or three or four places — very repetitive routes. The other 40 percent goes to 1,000 different routes. Let those trucks stay in business and deliver the one-offs.”
He claimed the load stations that would lift containers up to lock into the carriers would be able to process 75 to 80 containers an hour. He said they could be used in the same manner as “peel-off piles” are at container terminals — containers could be fed into the rail network in any order but then routed to their correct destinations by a computer.
He said a 10-kilometer system (about 6 miles) with about 25 carriers would cost about $200 million to $250 million to build.
“The problem is there is no buyer” for the system, said Wychocki. “It’s not the port, it’s outside the port gate. It’s not the railhead, it’s outside the rail. It goes over public land like a transportation network.”
To solve that problem, EagleRail proposes to create public-private partnerships, he said. Stakeholders such as port authorities, railroads and local governments would team up with EagleRail and large infrastructure investors. The investors would be able to pay back the debt used to finance the EagleRail systems by collecting a fee on each box moved, much as a toll road collects from each vehicle that travels along it.
“A dray or short-haul truck move may be $100 to go from the port to the railhead. If we can consolidate maybe half of those moves into one network, we can charge $90 a box,” said Wychocki.
He predicted, “We’re going to wake up five years from now and there’s going to be 20, 25 of these somewhere in the world, a fixed guideway shuttle system. And I say, why not us?”
Other companies are continuing their efforts to move cargo in and out of ports in innovative ways.
Freight Shuttle International first unveiled a prototype of a system for moving containers and truck trailers on a guideway using shuttle vehicles propelled by electric induction motors back in 2016 at an event attended by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Steve Roop, the chairman and chief executive officer of Freight Shuttle, said after going through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy during the past year, it is “fully rebooted and reconstituted and moving forward” as Freight Shuttle, having dropped the word “international” from its name.
He said his company is targeting domestic ports, including Houston.
Back in 2016 Freight Shuttle also signed a cooperation agreement with the Port of Houston. A spokeswoman for the port said the port “is always considering innovative approaches for the transport of cargo and freight logistics. To that end, as noted we have had preliminary conversations with Freight Shuttle about the potential opportunity for its technology in our region. We will continue our discussions with them and well as others as we continuously explore opportunities to decrease supply chain costs, reduce emissions, and/or reduce potential future congestion. “
Roop is an assistant director and research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and said the company continues to work on development of its product.
“We’re in the design process for our production version,” he said, explaining that Freight Shuttle could be used for both short-haul transport or for much longer runs of 300 to 500 miles or more. On long-distance moves, the shuttle could transport containers at highway speeds.
“Trucking is our main focus and main customer base,” Roop said. “We look to augment trucking in congested corridors.”
He said the goal is to provide a low-cost link to trucking companies to overcome congestion in corridors where they can no longer generate the revenue they need. In addition to ports, the system could be used at international border crossings or other congested corridors, Roop said.
Freight Shuttle also said it would transport containers and trailers (or even air cargo containers) on an elevated guideway, but unlike with the EagleRail system, the containers or trailers would rest on a platform instead of being supported from above. Roop questioned whether EagleRail’s proposal to support the containers from above would raise safety concerns if its tracks pass over other activities below.
David Alba, the chief executive officer of Grid Logistics and a former manager at Hanjin, also believes that with the growth in the size of containerships, there will be a need to evacuate containers as quickly as possible from terminals to locations away from the docks. His company in 2015 presented a proposal to build a 137-mile electrical rail loop system that would use shuttle carriers to move containers to seven feeder terminals in the greater Los Angeles area. Space adjacent to where ships tie up would be used to build a multilevel racking system called the SuperDock where export containers could be stored and then rapidly loaded onto ships.
DP World announced earlier this year that it plans to build a similar high-bay storage system that would store containers in a massive structure up to 11 stories high. It said its BoxBay system would be ready in time for Dubai Expo 2020, which is scheduled to open next October. DP World and Virgin Hyperloop have also created a company called DP World Cargospeed to to move palletized cargo in a hyperloop system.
In December 2018, the leading container terminal operator in the Port of Hamburg, Hamburger Hafen und Logistik Aktiengesellschaft (HHLA) and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, announced a joint venture that initially would connect the port with inland container yards.