Intermodal Facilities: Moving Up, Around, And About

Intermodal facilities enable goods to flow through the U.S., and locations are updating their offerings.

By Nora Caley
From the January/February 2024 Issue

It takes a complex system of trains, ships, trucks, and aircraft to move goods throughout the U.S. Despite some economic challenges, the intermodal industry remains a crucial element in satisfying consumer demand for almost anything.

In 2022, the U.S. freight transportation system moved nearly 20 billion tons of goods valued at approximately $19 trillion, according to “Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2023,” a publication from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Despite some economic challenges, the intermodal industry remains a crucial element in satisfying consumer demand for almost anything.

Trucking, the dominant mode of freight transportation by both weight and value in 2022, moved 12.6 billion tons of cargo valued at more than $13.6 trillion, the report stated. This represented 64.5% of the total freight weight and 72.5% of the total value.

Still, the industry does face certain challenges.

Total intermodal volumes fell 7.1% year-over-year in the third quarter of 2023, according to the Intermodal Association of North America’s (IANA) “Third Quarter Intermodal Volume Report.” Domestic container originations grew 1.6%, but loadings of international containers decreased 13.2% and trailers fell 23.3%.

One of the challenges the intermodal industry faces is that although consumers are spending on goods, wholesalers and retailers are meeting demand by selling existing inventory and discounting out-of-season products. So demand for freight is declining as stores work through an oversupply of COVID-19 pandemic-related items and other products. However, IANA reported that the next quarter is expected to see an uptick compared to the fourth quarter of 2022.

Here is how one region is attracting intermodal services businesses.

Port Tampa Bay: Florida’s Largest, Most Cargo Diverse Port

As Florida’s largest port — and one of the nation’s most diverse — Port Tampa Bay has emerged as the preferred supply chain solution to the largest market in the Southeast. With more than 500 million square feet of distribution center space in Port Tampa Bay’s backyard, the Tampa Bay/Orlando Interstate 4 Corridor is home to the largest concentration of distribution centers in Florida.

Port Tampa Bay is located in the fastest-growing region of the fastest-growing state in the country. Florida now has the country’s third-highest population with 22 million residents and welcomes 140 million tourists every year. Florida also now has the 15th largest economy in the world. The Tampa Bay region, combined with the I-4 Corridor, is home to almost half of Florida’s population. The growth is fueling demand for everything from retail and e-commerce goods to food and beverage, energy products, and construction and building materials.

Intermodal Facilities
Port Tampa Bay continues to build on double-digit growth in containerized cargo, as well as breakbulk and bulk cargoes. (Photo: Port Tampa Bay)

Port Tampa Bay continues to build on double-digit growth in containerized cargo, as well as breakbulk and bulk cargoes. For companies along the Tampa/Orlando I-4 corridor, the demand for same-day service, tighter delivery windows, and shorter lead times is driving this shift. Drivers can now make more, shorter, round-trip deliveries per day from Port Tampa Bay. Competitive northbound backhaul trucking rates extend the port’s reach to efficiently serve customers beyond the I-4, and Florida, to locations throughout the Southeast and beyond.

Port Tampa Bay, along with container terminal operator Ports America, has accommodated the growth in Florida by staying ahead of the curve thanks to its terminal build-out program. Recent expansion has resulted in an increase of paved storage to 67 acres, a new gate, and three more port-Panamax cranes that will be operational in early 2024. The next phase will bring an additional 30 acres of paved storage and a berth extension from 3,200 to 4,500 linear feet.

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Most of the major container global lines now serve Tampa from Asia, including CMA-CGM, COSCO, Evergreen, Maersk, MSC, OOCL, and ZIM. Port Tampa Bay also has excellent services to Central America, the Caribbean, and South America offered by Maersk, service to and from Costa Rica offered by Seatrade, and to Mexico offered by Linea Peninsular.

The importance of supply chain resiliency was a lesson learned from the pandemic. Finding new ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs is critical in today’s market. The ability to make multiple round-trip deliveries per day from port to distribution center means not only substantial savings in drayage costs but also a greener, more sustainable supply chain solution.

Port Tampa Bay has added capacity and has ample land available for continued growth, and those that are making strategic investments to add capacity are in excellent shape to meet any challenges. Port Tampa Bay is aggressively adding more acreage, more cranes, and more berths to ensure it continues to stay ahead of the curve.

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