Upcoming intermodal conference, 2,000 attendees strong, has a lot to celebrate

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What a difference a year will make.

When the Intermodal Association of North America met last year for its annual exposition, the U.S. rail industry was at the start of a period of several months of service that everyone had agreed was deteriorating rapidly. It wasn’t just intermodal; it was just about anything moving over the tracks.

By some standards, things are no better. For example, the average intermodal speed according to the National Surface Transportation Board in its most recent report is 31.8 mph. Last year at this time, it was 33.5 mph. Overall national rail system speed is down to 23.6 from 25.4 a year ago.

But based on the reports coming out of company earnings for the second quarter, intermodal demand is rising as are its profits. That will be one of the backdrops for this year’s IANA meeting, to be held September 16-18 at the Long Beach Convention Center in California.

Joni Casey, the president and CEO of IANA, said the meeting registration numbers are tracking ahead of 2017 and 2,000 attendees are expected. “Absolutely, the market acceptance of railroads has never been greater,” she said in an interview with FreightWaves to discuss the upcoming meeting. “It’s driven obviously by the overall increase in freight for everybody, and we’ve also got tight over-the-road capacity. That’s all throwing more freight to intermodal.” Add in higher fuel prices and a surge in imports that may be related to the fear of tariffs becoming more severe, and Casey said it’s all combined to create a strong market that will result in the IANA “having a great Kumbaya moment” at the conference.

With so much focus on driver issues and railroad performance, Casey said the industry has dealt over the last 2-3 years with another significant shift that doesn’t get quite as much attention: how intermodal dealt with the rise of the megaships. As she said, these giant carriers are discharging two or three times the numbers of containers that smaller ships would unload at the dock, and the industry has had to deal with IPI–inland point intermodals–movements. “You’ve got to get the stuff off the ship and then you’ve got to get it inland,” she said. The prospect of such ships a few years ago initially came with “a lot of anxiety whether terminals and rails could handle it,” according to Casey. “But all that is now leveling off.”

Hal Pollard, charged with putting together the extensive education program for the three days of IANA, said the general session on Tuesday will be very much customer-focused. Matthew Shay, the president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, will speak, to be followed by a panel of shippers from companies that include Walmart and Callaway Golf who will discuss the market from the perspective of the users of intermodal services. “They will be talking about the view of the industry from where they are sitting, the customer-eye view,” Pollard said. He also said it will be in an open forum, so first-hand views can be exchanged.

Intermodal, at a time when rapid delivery and last mile services are getting all the attention, might seem at first glance to be in a disadvantageous position. But Pollard said what he “frequently” tells people is that the biggest battle for the future is in last-mile delivery. Before a parcel gets to that point, Pollard said, there’s a lot that needs to happen to “fuel the decentralized distribution model that a lot of retailers are using.” “They want to push inventory into those distribution centers, and get it closer to their end customer,” Pollard said. “And absolutely they can accept an extra day or two that intermodal may add to the equation.”

The meeting will feature about 400-500 first-time attendees, and about 20-25 new exhibitors, with that group leaning heavily toward the technology sector. Transportation management systems, asset tracking and load matching, a “perennial” described as the “holy grail” of technology, will all be featured.

Besides tariffs, other public policy issues likely to be discussed won’t be that much different than what one might find at any trucking-related conference. Casey mentioned the advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding hours of service issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and also cited developments in New Jersey and California–in a California court and through a New Jersey executive order–that could impact the classification of independent contractors and whether they are actually full-time employees. Casey said approximately 80% of drivers in the intermodal chain are now classified as independent owner operators.

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.