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SuperFlo service thrives during current economic slowdown

Dec. 1, 2008
Despite the struggling US economy, the future looks very promising for the intermodal services provided by Superior Bulk Logistics Inc (SBL). Demand for

Despite the struggling US economy, the future looks very promising for the intermodal services provided by Superior Bulk Logistics Inc (SBL). Demand for transloading and other multimodal services remained brisk during 2008 as chemical and foodgrade shippers looked for ways to rein in distribution costs.

In fact, SBL's SuperFlo service was the revenue growth rate leader for the company in 2008. SuperFlo is the brand name for the transloading and storage services provided at 16 locations in the eastern half of the United States and on the West Coast by SBL's Superior Carriers Inc and Carry Transit operating units.

“Our SuperFlo operations are still doing well despite the soft economy,” says Gary W Watt, SBL senior vice-president and chief marketing officer. “We've seen no significant falloff in demand, and transload activity is growing faster than truck freight right now. Provided rail rates don't get out of hand, we believe our transload operations may fare better than trucking in 2009.

“We offer our customers a solid network of secure ISO 9001-2000 facilities with multimodal capabilities. Transloading works because it puts a shipper's inventory within easier reach of the delivery point. Most of the product deliveries are short hauls, making transloading a cost-effective alternative to longhaul trucking.”

SBL SuperFlo service processed about 10,000 railcar shipments through its transload facilities during 2008, and 2009 activity should be about the same. “Due to the economy, we anticipate little or no growth in our transload operations,” Watt says. “We're working hard to hold our ground and offset any attrition.”

Steady growth

The SuperFlo brand has come a long way in the 10 years since SBL acquired its first transload facility. Chemicals were the focus of the first location, but SBL expanded into foodgrade cargoes and plastic pellets as new transload terminals were added in the years that followed. More than half of the SuperFlo branded transload locations handle hazardous materials, and all but two are open to foodgrade shipments. The chemical sites are included in Superior Carriers annual Responsible Care Management System (RCMS) third party audit in conjunction with the company's American Chemistry Council (ACC) Responsible Care Partner Company membership.

Several critical factors contribute to the success of SBL's SuperFlo transload service, according to Watt. First and foremost, the company emphasizes outstanding customer service, as well as the ability to position customer inventories close to receivers. SBL works closely with customers to manage capacity and rail relationships. Finally, SBL has the ability to offer a wide range of multimodal services that include barges, totes, and tank containers.

“We plan to add more transload facilities in coming years,” Watt says. “I wouldn't be surprised if we open as many as five new locations in the next three years. Most will be dual served by Superior Carriers and Carry Transit. We'll target locations where there is a specific customer need. Most importantly, we'll try to target locations that have access to more than one rail carrier.

“We'll also offer more rail capacity in the future. Railroads are have made it clear that they wants to serve transload facilities that have enough trackage for unit trains. They want to deliver 50 to 100 cars at a time. Three of our locations have a hundred-car capacity now, and four can take well in excess of 50 cars.”

Sixteen locations

SBL owns, leases, or is the licensed operator of the 16 terminals that carry the SuperFlo brand and constitute the core of its transload network. These terminals are in Arlington, Texas; Bridgeview and Chicago, Illinois; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Holyoke, Massachusetts; Lakeland, Florida; Marion, Virginia; Memphis, Tennessee; Mobile, Alabama; Norwood (Cincinnati), Ohio; Parker, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; Rocky Mount, North Carolina; South Portland, Maine; Stockton, California; and Sulfur, Louisiana. The company also provides transload service for a dedicated customer-owned site in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as from other third-party locations across the United States.

Nine of the facilities are operated by Superior Carriers, and seven are under Carry Transit management. While Superior Carriers and Carry Transit have fleet terminals at or nearby, all of the SuperFlo branded transload locations are open to other carriers.

“The SuperFlo service is a separate profit center from our tank truck fleet operations,” says James E Blackmon, Carry Transit president. “Carry Transit and Superior Carriers are the minority carriers at most of the transload facilities.”

Transloading forms the foundation for a growing array of logistics services offered by SBL and its Superior Carriers and Carry Transit divisions. “The transloading business is giving us the opportunity to expand our logistics offerings,” Blackmon says. “At one customer facility, we've taken over management of transferring inbound ship cargo into storage tanks. Then we load outbound shipments into tank trailers and rail tankcars. We plan to add warehousing at new and existing SuperFlo locations. We'll probably add more storage tank capacity, as well.”

Marion terminal

Liquid storage actually was a part of the SuperFlo service from the very beginning. Located in Marion, Virginia, SBL's first transload terminal has 17 aboveground chemical storage tanks with a total capacity of 270,000 gallons. Operational since 1978, the facility added the SuperFlo name in 1997.

The five-acre Marion facility handles a variety of chemicals with a particular emphasis on mining products, according to Johnny Williams, Superior Carriers Eastern Region vice-president. Products are stored in steel and fiberglass tanks with capacities ranging from 7,000 to 25,000 gallons. More than 4,000 feet of stainless steel piping is in place to move chemicals from tankcar to storage tank to tank truck or directly from railcar to tank truck.

Along with transloading and storage, the Marion terminal offers custom blending services. Product can be shipped in totes, as well as tank trucks and railcars. “We want to be a one-stop resource for our customers,” Williams says.

One of the smaller terminals in SBL's SuperFlo system, Marion has a siding with just 16 car spots. “The storage tanks limit the need for larger rail capacity,” Williams says. “We process about 600 inbound railcar shipments a year, and we have some outbound rail traffic.”

Transloading equipment includes a 125-horsepower boiler for heating product in railcars, a compressor, and Blackmer stationary pumps. A Superior Carriers fleet terminal is next door to the transload facility.

Arlington transloading

One of the most impressive facilities in SBL's SuperFlo system — especially in terms of dedicated foodgrade operations — is in Arlington, Texas. Like Marion, the Arlington terminal has extensive storage tank capacity. Dual served by BNSF and Union Pacific, this is one of three SBL transload sites with access to more than one rail carrier.

Union Pacific provides daily pick-up and delivery of railcars Monday through Friday. The Arlington location has its own Trackmobile for repositioning railcars on site.

Operated by Carry Transit, the terminal originally was built by Imperial Sugar in 1980. Carry Transit bought the operation in 1994, and the facility was extensively upgraded and expanded in the years that followed.

Today, the Arlington terminal occupies a 15-acre site and handles a diverse range of products that include liquid sweeteners, granulated sugar, vegetable oil, and flour. “Our customers include the beverage industry, bakeries, and food processors,” says Terry Bledsue, terminal manager. “To better serve them, we doubled our acreage in 2006. We launched a major upgrade program (completed in 2007) that boosted the number of carspots to 100 from 18.”

Ten sections of track are now in place, and the entire track area is paved with concrete. Between 4,000 and 5,000 railcar shipments a year are processed through the facility.

“Many of the improvements we made were intended to help us provide our foodgrade customers with the highest reasonable level of sanitary service,” Bledsue says. “For instance, we encased the rail in concrete so there are no exposed ties. Concrete paving is more expensive, but it wears better. We also added extensive underground drainage. We spent enough money on the upgrades to do them right. We didn't cut corners.

“That matters a lot to our customers, who are very concerned about product purity. We're audited at least a dozen times a year by our customers, and these are extensive audits, each one taking up to two days. We follow the bottler sanitary standards for transloading and tank trailer cleaning, as well as practice (Food and Drug Administrations's) HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) safety procedures.”

Sweeteners account for a majority of the product transloaded in Arlington. Sweeteners pass through a portable FSI filter unit when transferred from railcar to tank trailer. Steam heat is available to help with transloading of more viscous sweeteners. Up to 40 tankcars at a time can be heated with steam from a 150-hp boiler.

Truck- and trailer-mounted product pumps handle most liquid transfer. Truck mounted compressors are used for dry bulk transloading. A stationary compressor also is available for handling liquid and dry cargoes.

Drip pans are placed under the railcar discharge outlets during transloading to prevent lost product. In the event of a major spill, all product can be contained on the concrete. Workers can quickly seal the storm drains.

Storage capacity

On the storage side, the focus is solely on sweeteners at this time. Arlington has 140,000 gallons of covered storage tank capacity and 180,000 gallons of outside storage. The facility also has a 400,000-pound silo for granulated sugar.

Sugar melting and sweetener blending capabilities are part of the storage operation. Pasteurization and microbial sampling services also are available. An onsite laboratory provides product sample analysis.

In addition to transloading and product storage, the Arlington facility also serves as a Carry Transit fleet terminal. Twenty-eight tractors and 40 tank and dry bulk trailers are based at the facility. A fleet maintenance shop should be up and running by the end of 2009.

Cargo tank cleaning is a key service offered at the Arlington terminal. The four-bay Sanicare Wash Systems rack uses Carry Transit's proprietary software to ensure consistent, thorough foodgrade cleaning. Computerized processes conserve water and energy and maximize cleaning functions. Sanicare's integrated tank drying system controls the flow of filtered air through a custom manhole assembly.

Memphis location

SBL's SuperFlo terminal in Memphis offers a good example of a transload location that handles both chemicals and foodgrade products. Formerly a Matlack terminal, the facility on President's Island has been in operation for at least 20 years.

Until recently, Superior Carriers ran the facility and launched an upgrade effort in the fall of 2007. The initial focus was on chemicals, but foodgrade activity gradually began to dominate the operation. Carry Transit took over management of the facility in 2008.

Foodgrade products transloaded at the terminal include corn sweetener, sorbitol, soy oil, and flour. On the chemical side, the facility handles primarily latex, plastics, and water treatment products.

“We've done a lot to clean up and improve this transload terminal to attract more business, and it's paying off,” says Steve Ratcliff, terminal manager. “Over the next five years we want to build a fleet maintenance shop and wash rack. We also want to refurbish and recertify a barge dock that occupies part of the property.

“We run the foodgrade and chemical sections of the facility as separate rail yards. Chemical and foodgrade operations are completely segregated with at least 100 yards of open area separating them.”

Expansion room

Six sections of track are in place, offering 56 carspots at this time. Three sections are dedicated to foodgrade cargoes and are paved with asphalt. Three track sections are for chemicals and that area is surfaced with gravel.

The asphalt paving serves as containment for the foodgrade area. In the chemical area, the terrain shape provides natural containment. In addition, the gravel was put down over asphalt that was already in place.

More rail capacity can be added to meet demand because the terminal currently uses just 5.5 acres of the 53-acre site. “We have a lot of potential expansion room to make this a premier SuperFlo location,” Ratcliff says. “We have plenty of room to add stationary storage to meet customer needs.”

While Carry Transit runs the facility, trucking is provided by Superior Carriers and other trucking companies. Product handling equipment that is available on site includes Blackmer stainless steel portable transfer pumps and a portable compressor. The facility also has nitrogen on hand for product transfer. Steam from a 150-hp Clever Brooks boiler is piped to 16 foodgrade carspots.

Facility upgrades and expansions are certain to continue for SBL's SuperFlo transload operation. It's part of a companywide passion to continually achieve higher levels of performance while striving to meet customers' changing needs.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.