For decades, trucks have dominated as the main transporter of goods inland, but trains are picking up steam, and Charlotte is part of an ambitious plan by one railway to pick up even more.
Ever since the U.S. built the highway system, if something needs to get shipped in bulk, it generally goes by truck. Trucks are flexible—they go anywhere the highway goes.
But if it’s going a long distance, especially 1,000 miles or more, then it’s probably going by the cheaper, more fuel-efficient train.
Of course, if it’s coming from overseas, it arrives by ship, often in a metal container. The container gets loaded onto a truck or train (vice-versa for exports).
A small part of the freight industry involves all three—goods arrive in a container on a ship, which gets put on a train, then is transferred to a truck for the last leg.
When the container moves between two forms of transportation, it’s called “intermodal,” but the term is most often used to refer to a combination of train and truck. In the 1980s, railroad companies realized they could stack the containers on top of each other in two layers.
The double stack was a “huge deal” says Tom Jacoby of railroad Norfolk Southern, a 26-year veteran of the industry. “Because you can move double the freight on the same amount of freight length.”
Jacoby manages Norfolk Southern’s new $90 million intermodal facility in Charlotte, which opened last year next to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. It’s a 180-acre parking lot of cargo containers and railroad tracks. Here, the switch between truck and train happens.
“This is my shiny new penny, I like showing it off,” Jacoby says.
A constant stream of trucks pull in the entrance to drop off containers. Empty train cars roll along tracks and snap together. Then, a crane moves alongside the assembled cars, grabs containers, and loads them onto the train. It takes less than a minute before it moves to the next one.
“By the time this leaves, it will be all solid double stacks,” Jacoby says of the train.
Two trains go through every day, and about 1,200 trucks. Walmart, Target, Electrolux, and Black & Decker are just a few of the large companies relying on them.
“One train comes through Chicago, and one train comes through Atlanta,” says Jacoby. “It could basically go just about anywhere from here.”
Since 2000, enormous stations like the one in Charlotte are opening across the U.S., at a rate of about two a year, according to a report by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. The facilities are part of a bid by railroads to butt into shipping routes controlled solely by trucks. Every new intermodal facility creates a new jump-off point, where businesses can connect to the cheaper railroad, even over shorter distances.
Meanwhile, in the trucking industry, an aging workforce and new regulations have led to driver shortages. So, the bid is working. Intermodal is the fastest growing mode of shipping, but still almost entirely on longer routes.
“They have not figured out a way to make intermodal profitable at anything less than 1,000 miles,” says Noel Perry, a consultant at transportation research firm FTR Associates. “There’s some at 800 or 900, but not a lot.”
Perry says one railroad is betting it can compete on much shorter routes—Norfolk Southern—and Charlotte is “right in the heart of this grand experiment.”
From Charlotte, trains do the more traditional business—traveling to the port of Charleston and out west—but it also lies about 620 miles from New York. Norfolk Southern’s intermodal director Christine Traubel says that’s in range.
“Our sweet spot is sort of 550 miles or greater,” says Traubel. “That’s where we see a lot of conversion happening.”
With enough intermodal facilities dotting the way, the company thinks it can replace more than a million trucks traveling on congested East Coast freeways.
If it works, it could mean more business for Charlotte. City officials actively recruited the new facility. The airport owns the land, and leases it for $1 million a year. But interim aviation director Brent Cagle says there’s a larger goal than rent payments. The intermodal is another pitch to attract new businesses to the area.
“What we’re really looking to further develop is how do we draw in companies that may have a need for all forms of transportation when moving goods—air, truck, rail,” says Cagle.
While the railroads and city have pinned their hopes to this growing form of transportation, it has its skeptics.
“Rail has some serious flaws that I don’t think will ever be overcome,” says Charles Jeter, who runs Intermodal FCL, a Charlotte-based company that transfers and stores property seized by U.S. Treasury agents—whether it’s counterfeit T-shirts or stolen Monet’s. Jeter is also a state representative. He says he generally doesn’t trust intermodal rail.
“You’re touching that truck a lot as far as the transitions from boat to train, to train to train, to train to truck, to truck to off-loading,” says Jeter. “In the freight industry, the less you touch things, the better things end up being when they get to your dock.”
Plus, trains have some of the same notorious service problems as the New York subway—you never quite know when one will show up. Still, because of trucking’s shortages, most analysts expect intermodal shipping to keep growing, anywhere from 5 to 7 percent a year. That means more goods going from truck to store, and, for Charlotte, a larger role in the shipping business.