EARLIER this year, containerized intermodal shipping as we know it today celebrated a milestone — its first 50 years. April 26, 1956 was the day Malcolm P McLean, a trucker, loaded 50 dry freight containers aboard the Ideal X, a converted tanker, and sent them from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston, Texas.
While dry freight containers came first, they were followed in short order by tank containers. The number of containers of all sorts in service worldwide continues to grow, and they dominate international commerce today. Tanks and box containers are used to transport a wide range of liquid and dry bulk products.
While progress has been steady, it hasn't always been easy. Even today, tank container operators and users find it challenging — at best — to work with US railroads. The most recent roadblock resulted from a move this year by the major North American railroads to ban container shipments of toxic-by-inhalation (TIH) products.
Containers are just a part of the intermodal mix in North America, though. By far, transloading dominates the North American bulk intermodal sector. It has done so for years, and it will continue to be the dominant factor for the foreseeable future.
For the most part, transloading in North America relies on the railroads to handle the long-distance movement of liquid and dry bulk cargoes. Barges and ships play a smaller role. Regardless of transportation mode, the cargo is staged a transloading location for local and regional delivery to the customers.
No matter how inept or inefficient the North American railroads become, they still offer the lowest-cost option for long-distance shipments of commodities, such as plastic pellets, general chemicals, and foods like flour and sweeteners.
Development of new transloading sites has declined, but that is because the prime locations on the main lines across the United States and Canada are already taken, and the railroads in those two countries are unlikely to ever again take on a significant expansion of their rail networks. Shortline railroads probably offer the best potential for new transload terminal development in the United States and Canada.
Mexico is a different story. It is still a developing market for the transloading sector, and new facilities are still coming on line. Some of these are very large operations.
Wherever they are located, existing transload facilities seem to have plenty of business. The future looks good for transloading, just as it does for tank containers. Driving factors include the following: The chemical industry continues to shift plants to Asia and the Middle East; truck drivers remain in short supply across North America; and border-crossing delays reduce truck transport efficiency.
When it's all said and done, the bulk intermodal sector should be able to look forward to another 50 great years.