News & Reviews News Wire Analyst: RoadRailer a ‘missed opportunity’ for industry NEWSWIRE

Analyst: RoadRailer a ‘missed opportunity’ for industry NEWSWIRE

By Angela Cotey | November 25, 2015

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Brian Schmidt
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – A leading intermodal analysts says that Norfolk Southern’s decision to scale back use of its RoadRailer trailer trains is a “missed opportunity” for the industry.

Earlier this month, NS discontinued most of its RoadRailer trains and is incorporating traffic that was once moved by its Fort Wayne-based Triple Crown Services into its general intermodal services. The railroad will continue to use the RoadRailer train between Kansas City and Detroit to move auto parts. NS made the decision to “restructure” its Triple Crown subsidiary back in September. About 200 people will lose their jobs because of the change.

“This change is a natural evolution in the business,” said Alan H. Shaw, NS executive vice president and chief marketing officer, back in September. “We want to retain the best of TCS in specific, markets, with efficient door-to-door logistics and award-winning customer service.”

RoadRailers were specialty trailers that could easily be moved from the highway to the rails without having to be loaded onto a flatcar. The technology dates back to the 1950s but didn’t become prominent until the 1980s. In 1986, Conrail NS started Triple Crown Services, eventually growing to serve Toronto, Minneapolis, Detroit, Dallas, and Atlanta. During its first year, NS moved 5,000 trailer loads but by 2007 it was moving 294,000 loads annually. Amtrak, BNSF Railway, and CSX Transportation also used RoadRailers at one time or another.

Larry Gross was involved with RoadRailer since the 1980s and calls himself a “true believer” of the technology. Today he is a private consultant. Gross says that while RoadRailer may not have worked in the western U.S. – where intermodal hauls were often long journeys – he says it was ideal for the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast, where the routes were shorter. RoadRailer is especially ideal for moving things like auto parts, which it will continue to do for the time being. What doomed the technology was that railroads are more interested in hauling longer, heavier trains and that RoadRailer was an outlier, Gross says.

“NS was not comfortable being the only RoadRailer operator in my opinion,” Gross tells Trains News Wire. “Had other railroads maintained it maybe the story would be very different.”

He says he’s said to see NS scale back its RoadRailer service but is proud to have played a role in its nearly 30 year history.

“RoadRailer had a hell of a run,” Gross says.

11 thoughts on “Analyst: RoadRailer a ‘missed opportunity’ for industry NEWSWIRE

  1. I also think Mr. Norton is spot on about the railroad mentality. RRs do have an inherent advantage however, and that is of utilization. RRs should be manifested in trains probably not longer than 75 trailers were terminal dwell times would be minimal. NS looking to squeeze every drop of operating blood the RR trains were becoming longer and longer. Too, as another writer suggested, the railroad simply would not reinvest. Most here will note that the containers and dwell cars are not owned by any railroad. Most are leased and just linehauled by the railroad. That is the way they want it. No fuss no muss. NS operation of the Roadrailers were not moving in the right direction. Lost opportunity, but the railroads don’t really care for individualized service. Mostly, including NS have become bulk carriers. Had some trucking companies or leasing companies stepped up to own the RR equipment, perhaps the technology would have continued. A real shame.

  2. Unfortunate, but inevitable, it seems. Standardized equipment just has that advantage: shipping containers can go anywhere: trucks, trains, and boats. Roadrailers would possibly be made to handle shipping containers, and perhaps that would bring the business back. But unless they're also double-stacked, they'd still be at a disadvantage. The other way to bring this service back is to be more truly like a truck. Though pretty efficient, building a train of roadrailers does take time that the containers are not in motion, and getting them to the loading facility takes time too. If a truck driver could drive to the loading facility and keep right on driving down the railroad just like it was a highway, that would eliminate these issues. Practically it wouldn't work too well, but that's why the railroads just don't get certain business. For comparison, I drive my truck and trailer 2 hours each way to get 2 tons of hay a couple times a year from a place that is just a couple miles off the same NS rail line that goes through my town. How I'd love to put rail wheels on my truck and trailer and take advantage of the better gas mileage I'd get, but there's no way I would expect NS to handle that move when their line is already busy with 30 or so trains a day, including the Roadrailers just recently cancelled!

  3. The gentleman who describes a possible USPS Roadrailer operation overlooked two things:
    USPS "management" and railroad "management."
    Neither industry is famous for forward-looking thinking.

  4. Unfortunately, both in equipment and operation, Triple Crown is more like a trucking company rather than a railroad. NS does currently does not have the same zeal for such an operation as its prior administration did. One of the chief advantages RoadRailer technology presents is its flexibility and utilization factors. I would hazard to guess, most RR customers cannot nor will not shift to containers. Service standards for the type freight TC was moving is not conducive for the slower container shipping times regardless of costs savings.

    The railroads do not lead innovation, but seem over the decades to be followers. I suspect too, that not having a national network established has inhibited growth and now continued investment in the technology. For a brief moment Amtrak provided such, but there was not enough time to develop such before Amtrak made the unfortunate decision to leave the freight and express business. This seems to be an unfortunate aspect of railroads to get into a market and then leave the shippers hanging or forcing them to services only the railroads want to deliver.

    A shortline(s) could purchase the excess equipment and design marketing routes regionally that could make sense. The biggest disadvantage to the use of RR of course is the dray. Shortlines might reduce this impediment because of their inherent lower overhead costs. The highways are full of trucks. The challenge for the railroads, if they want a chunk of that revenue, is to develop the services and equipment to do so. Double stacks will not ever be most of the customers choice regardless of what the railroads wish. The railroads will just go on looking for singular volume shippers to add to their bottom lines.

  5. The biggest potential for RoadRailer today and in the future is the US Postal Service, the RoadRailer is perfect for the US mail as it does two functions at once. First it can be used for local delivery from the Bulk Postal center to local Post Offices, secondly they can be used to move directly between the Bulk Postal centers. This would also reduce the Post Offices expenses on OTR which are considerable since they contract the service to several different companies(as well as their own drivers). Would it lengthen the time mail, especially bulk mail, gets delivered, perhaps by a day or two, but not much more, and it would possibly even bring some mail back to the Post Office if the RR's could offer reliable consistent service, would it cost the RR's additional money, only to pave access on one or two tracks in an existing intermodal yard for current terminals, and you only need to look at street running for a simple unloading area in other cities.

  6. Its a vicious cycle. The railroads still have that underlying mentality of doing things "their" way despite market opportunites. Amtrak has yet to see the successful Auto Train on any addition routes in 30 years of operation. My hometown is served by a railroad that sees no market in the two staples of life….food and shelter. This community of over 40,000 sees no food or building material arrive by rail. That's been a missed opportunity for years now.

  7. I still think RoadRailers have potential for shorter hauls where terminal time and costs prevent double stack from becoming competitive. Perhaps if there were a RoadRailer container chassis, they could replace drayage by truck to and from major intermodal terminals.

    Also, RoadRailers are significantly for aerodynamic than double stacks. This could save significant fuel, especially if a railroad were to reintroduce higher speed intermodal service, like the Super C.

    Finally, I still wonder if Amtrak would have been better off continuing to use RoadRailers to offer mail and express service.

  8. My thought is that RoadRailer was doomed as soon as domestic double-stack service got its legs. The 35-40% savings in line-haul costs offset the savings RR originally offered over lugging all the iron incorporated in TTX flats involved with conventional piggyback service – and I gather that the drayage and rail terminal costs for containers and RR are about the same. NS simply ran off the capital investment in RR equipment – when it came time to replace the worn-out (and expensive-to-purchase-and-maintain) trailers, NS decided to pull the plug. UPS and Fedex are rapidly shifting their rail movements from piggyback to containers to take advantage of this – in a2-3 years, the tell-tale UPS trailers on ultra-hot inter-modal trains will all but disappear for the same reasons.

    Throw the fact that RR requires a separate network of trains with nothing else contributing to the variable and fixed separate terminal costs (and that 2-person crews are now the norm, unlike 1989), the end was inevitable.

    Sorry to sound like John Kneiling, but facts can be brutal.

  9. I work on a shoreline Railroad. I see intermodal train daily but I don't see highways that aren't cover up with trucks. The Railroad I work for moves all the freight it can get and you still see intermodal containers going in the industry that could get box cars.

  10. The half dozen, or more, writing errors in the above article is particularly jarring. Please edit these more carefully.

  11. If your going to run a train with 100 RoadRailers you might as well goto double stack containers and save the train length. RoadRailers big advantage is the ability to set up small terminals at minimal cost and equipment.
    The place where, IMHO, RoadRailers would do well is moving smaller groups(say 10-50 boxes) of shipments from one location to another. In my career as an OTR driver many times I have seen shippers or receivers who had multiple shipments going to the same shipper to receiver. And had rail access at both ends. The best example I can think of is food companies like Kraft, Kellogg, Pillsbury and others to grocers distribution centres(DC), like Safeway, Kroger or Wal-Mart. Another is from rail container terminal to retail DC(Target, KMart, or Wal-Mart).
    A few years back Triple Crown was moving food products for Kraft from warehouse to warehouse, not sure if they still are.

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