NY-NJ gets rail grant as port seeks to grow intermodal franchise

by | Apr 4, 2023 | Articles, News

The Port of New York and New Jersey is hoping a new $6 million grant can kick start a move toward better on-dock rail service and converting more shippers to intermodal. The port is doing so as other East Coast ports expand intermodal service in a bid to grab more discretionary cargo.  

New Jersey’s Department of Transportation last week awarded the grant for the construction of new crossover tracks for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s (PANYNJ’s) ExpressRail facility at Elizabeth. Those crossover tracks would allow trains originating from the port’s two largest container terminals to connect directly with southbound tracks adjacent to the facilities.  

Currently, intermodal trains from those two terminals must first travel north before they can cross over to southbound tracks, an extra move that can add hours of delays due to other freight activity on the tracks.  

Tyrone Harrison, manager for the PANYNJ’s intermodal rail development, told the Journal of Commerce that the Southbound Connector could be completed by the end of 2025. The easier access from the port as a whole could mean up to six more daily intermodal train departures, he said.  

“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Harrison said. “With this increase, that would help out significantly through the gateway.” 

Other ports eye intermodal growth 

The port’s four ExpressRail facilities are able to handle up to 1.4 million container lifts annually. But it remains only about 50 percent utilized with the PANYNJ reporting 706,774 lifts in 2022, flat with 2021 and accounting for about 14 percent of the port’s total container volume. 

By comparison, the Port of Virginia, which is the next port of call after New York and New Jersey for many container services, saw its rail lifts rise 12 percent last year to 653,739, accounting for 32 percent of total container volume there.  

Harrison did not address the decision of shippers to forgo rail options. But shippers across the country have previously expressed frustration with the periodic limitations on container traffic that railroads implemented last year due to chassis shortages or lack of yard space.  

Harrison, who previously worked for Norfolk Southern Railway, said his office is doing more operational calls with railroads to keep shippers up to date on service changes. Likewise, PANYNJ is also more heavily marketing its intermodal rail service to discretionary cargo shippers.  

“We’re reaching out to beneficial cargo owners and securing volume when [more intermodal trains] come they will be ready for it,” Harrison said. “Our main goal is truck conversion.” 

Rail shippers are seeing faster service out of the port than truckers. PANYNJ data shows that containers bound for rail depart about 36 hours after they arrive compared to a three-and-a-half-day dwell time for truck containers.  

Still, NY-NJ’s rail dwell is similar to the Port of Virginia’s most recent dwell time for rail imports. Moreover, the Port of Virginia recently added Memphis as a destination for intermodal rail, which neither of the Class I railroads offers on their intermodal schedules from New York-New Jersey.  

Other ports are also making a play for handling more intermodal freight. The Port of Baltimore is adding on-dock rail and increasing the height of a tunnel so CSX Transportation can double stack containers.  

The Port of St. John in New Brunswick, Canada, this spring is adding two post-Panamax cranes that will allow it to serve trans-Pacific vessels. From there, Canadian Pacific can reach the US Midwest.  

Harrison, though, said New York-New Jersey still offers the fastest transit time for rail shippers to the key distribution market in Chicago, with service there under two days. He said the port is working with railroads to find other inland destinations, while other fluidity improvements in addition to the Southbound Connector are being studied.  

“It’s getting more competitive overall, but a lot of trains that leave here have great transit times,” Harrison said. “For beneficial cargo owners it comes down to price and when am I going to get my cargo.”  

Source: Journal Of Commerce

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