Port authority’s long-term goal is to become the East Coast port leader for railed containers to the Midwest.
The Port of Virginia doesn’t want to be thought of by shippers as just an East Coast port where containers are dropped off, but as a rail-driven gateway that provides service all the way to the Midwest.
In the past several years, the port authority has made significant investments to connect its two large container terminals — Virginia International Gateway (VIG) and Norfolk International Terminals (NIT) — to the national networks of Class I railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.
The beefed-up rail services also offer a relief valve to potential congestion as larger containerships begin to call on the mid-Atlantic port. The port authority has branded its rail strategy Smart Stack.
“What makes us known in the industry is our rail service,” said Tom Capozzi, Virginia International Terminals (VIT) chief sales officer, at a recent conference of the Virginia Maritime Association.
About 35% of the port’s 2.5 million TEUs for the annual period July 2017 to June 2018 exited its container terminals by rail, Capozzi said.
At VIG, for example, the port has physically doubled its on-dock rail capacity, with the final piece of that expansion work to be completed at the end of May. The size and scope of this project brings VIG’s rail infrastructure in with line with NIT’s capabilities.
The expanded rail yard at VIG includes more than 20,000 linear feet of track, which is served by four new cantilever, rail-mounted gantry cranes (CRMGs). The rail operation is monitored and managed by Navis’ N4 terminal operating system.
“Having gone from nearly 10,000 feet of track to nearly 20,000 feet gives us the capacity to build more trains on dock,” said Joe Harris, a port spokesman. “We have added more cassettes to the rail operation, giving us more capacity to get containers from the stack yard to the rail operation.”
He added that the new CRMGs are “far more efficient than their predecessors, so on an hour-by-hour measure we will have greater productivity than ever before.”
For its rail services, the port authority has invested $25 million in on-dock track and related infrastructure, $18 million in rail cargo-handling equipment and $4 million in supporting information technology.
The Port of Virginia’s NIT and VIG terminals build out on a daily basis several double-stack trains that serve 14 markets. “They are headed to America’s Heartland, those important Midwest manufacturing and population centers — Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Louisville, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Greensboro and Decatur are our primary destinations — that have been served for decades by the Port of Virginia,” Harris said.
With the exception of last year’s slight decline, double-stack rail traffic out of the port’s two main container terminals has steadily increased.
In fiscal year 2017, the Port of Virginia’s rail volume reached 568,894 containers, up 11%. Rail volumes dropped 1.7% to 559,307 containers in fiscal year 2018. However, the port has projected an 8.4% increase in rail traffic at 606,493 containers in fiscal year 2019, or 35% of the port’s total cargo volume, and another 3.6% increase in railed cargo to 628,330 containers in fiscal year 2020.
Capozzi said it is the port’s goal to rail 40% of its inbound containers to the U.S. interior by 2022, with a longer-term goal of 50%.
The port authority also has experienced an increase in rail container traffic at its Virginia Inland Port (VIP) in Front Royal, Va.
“Rail container volume through that terminal is up nearly 11% in fiscal year 2019 — 33,124 total rail containers — when compared with the same period last year,” Harris said. “The growth at VIP is driving the need for expansion.”
In December, the port authority announced a $15.5 million investment at the inland terminal to build three new tracks, extend existing tracks and purchase two new straddle cranes. This investment is supported by a U.S. Department of Transportation Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant.