Houston has no problem with shift to rail

Freight from the Port of Houston to the inland conurbation of Dallas – Fort Worth will now go by rail. Shipping line Maersk is seeking to solve its logistics challenges by partnering with BNSF for rail freight onward handling. Port authorities are collaborating with quayside drayage, while BNSF are making available their marshalling yard at Fort Worth for the inland distribution.

The challenges of supply chain distraction and driver availability are not confined to Europe. Maersk have blamed a shortage of chassis (road trailers) as the main reason for switching over to rail for their scheduled connection between the Gulf of Mexico and inland Texas. It’s a telling pointer towards American logistics thinking that the shipping line felt an apology was necessary to their customers.

Revitalised rail terminal

Sources within Maersk say they have never experienced such extensive problems with availability before. Not being able to assemble enough trailers on the quayside, leaves containers expensively stacked up, tractor drivers waiting expensively with no loads, and ships expensively at anchor waiting to discharge.

The Barbour’s Cut rail facility at La Porte, Texas (Image Port of Houston)

The solution is to use the rail terminal at La Porte, within a purpose built harbour, some 25 miles (40km) from downtown Houston. The importance of the city’s port lies in its protected situation, behind the barrier islands that protect Galveston Bay from the worst of the Gulf of Mexico weather.

Supply chain squeeze

The Port of Houston does have rail freight facilities, so it may seem illogical to European operators that they’re not used already. However, the La Porte facility, while extensive, is off the quayside, which is dominated by road traffic. Add the entrenched nature of the logistics industry, and the deeply influential American trades unions, coupled with cultural resistance, and it makes any replacement of trucks with trains into something of a raw nerve.

Hard habit to break. Trucking is ingrained in the US economy (Port of Houston image)

Nevertheless, the chronically disrupted supply chain throughout North America has caused well-documented problems for industry as a whole. That has impacted on port operations more than most, with America’s biggest terminals – at Los Angeles, Baltimore and now Houston all feeling the squeeze.

BNSF to the rescue

“The unprecedented challenges seen over the past year impacting drayage [short distance transfers] and chassis availability has led to increased dwell times in Houston and a sharp decline in reliability for our customer supply chains”, said a statement from Maersk. “In efforts to provide a more reliable and sustainable solution for imports routed via Houston into the Dallas/Fort Worth area, we will transition to a rail connection utilising the BNSF rail network.”

A BNSF arrives at Fort Worth (BNSF)

The partnership with BNSF is made possible by the reopening of rail facilities at Barbour’s Cut – a forty-year old intermodal development. The terminal is slightly disadvantaged by being positioned off the quayside, but the port authorities are confident they can handle the volume of drayage transfers on behalf of Maersk and BNSF. “Barbour’s Cut containers will load onto railcars for movement to the BNSF Alliance Intermodal facility [at Fort Worth]”, say Maersk.

“We work to ensure we are able to continue to operate a safe and efficient rail network, provide our customers with the level of service they have come to expect from BNSF as well as position ourselves for future growth opportunities,” said Katie Farmer, their president and CEO. The three hundred mile journey (540 km) should take one day from port to terminal.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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