High-tech CSX hub takes intermodal to next level.
Companies like CSX are applying new approaches to increase the density and efficiency of new intermodal terminals.
These include stacking stored containers trackside, using cantilevered, wide-span electric cranes that can cross several tracks at once, employing advanced software to optimize the order of lifts, and automated gate systems that minimize queuing of truck traffic.
Much of the operations concept and technology for transferring containers between trucks and railcars is borrowed from the maritime industry, which moves boxes between ships and surface transportation. The idea is to better use available space by stacking containers as is done in many marine terminals, or eliminate the need for temporary storage by coordinating truck arrivals with scheduled train operations to allow direct transfers of cargo.
CSX’s pioneering “hub-and-spoke” model for transferring cargo not served by direct routes has its origins in the aviation industry, where airlines more efficiently consolidate passengers and serve more destinations from a single location.
Cranes that work across the tracks better utilize space than side-load and top-load forklifts and rubber-tired gantry cranes that can only access two tracks at the most and require extra lanes to pass. They also reduce the need for shuttle trucks and employees to move boxes around the yard, with knock-on environmental benefits.
The automated gates at the Ohio hub have optical character recognition technology that can read the container number and license plate as a truck enters the facility at speeds up to 30 mph. Drivers proceed to the kiosk where a bar code on the commercial drivers’ license is scanned to verify their identity and to make sure they are cleared to enter, according to CSX officials. A small staff in a central office remotely interacts with the drivers. The terminal operating system automatically matches the container number to the bill of lading — the shipping requirements electronically filed by the customer — and spits out instructions on where in the facility the container should be delivered or picked up.
|CSX employs a range of approaches to increase density and efficiency of intermodal terminals.
Automatically assigning containers to optimum yard location to minimize handling and then directing over-the-road drivers to a specific point is designed to create a single traffic pattern, rather than having truckers scurry around trying to find their boxes.
When a container is not ready for pickup, the driver is sent to a queuing area away from the center of activity where an electronic board provides information on the priority in which he or she will be served, with those having waited the longest moving to the top of the virtual line. CSX eventually hopes to provide drivers with wait time estimates so they can do paperwork, make phone calls or take care of other business in the cab, an official said.
Among the unique innovations CSX has deployed at the facility is a rail portal system that similarly identifies the railcars and containers (top and bottom) as the train arrives. The terminal operating system matches the equipment to the bill of lading and instructs the cranes what to do.
Only two other terminals in the world use similar technology — BNSF’s facilities in Seattle and Memphis, Tenn. — but they are end-destinations that don’t have to calculate the switching of containers to other trains for onward delivery, said Vance Bennett, CSX’s director of intermodal port strategy.
A rail operator in a command center uses the terminal operating system data to determine which tracks to switch trains to, and whether they need to be set up for a block drop/connect or have their containers worked.
The five cranes operate above two main lines down the center of the terminal where 80 through-trains per day travel; eight side tracks for building trains; two truck lanes; and two lanes for stacked containers. The electric cranes are much quieter and emit much less pollution than diesel lift equipment used throughout the industry.
When intermodal trains normally have a block of cars to be dropped for local delivery they have to be switched to another track, and then switched again to pick up another block for other destinations, all of which can take two to six hours to complete, Bennett said.
At the Northwest Ohio terminal the five rail-mounted cranes can move 30 containers per hour between the train and a segment block staging for the next train, resulting in huge efficiency gains, he said.