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TTI: In It for the Long Haul

September 8, 2014


Watch a video on the supertrains

The numbers say it all: more than 800 containers, more than 12,000 tons of cargo, one train.

“We’re maximizing our throughput,” said David Hope, Director of Rail Operations at Total Terminals International (TTI) Inc., the only marine container terminal in the West Coast’s busiest port complex that regularly dispatches and receives 12,000-foot trains. “The longer the train, the higher the efficiency.”

On dock at its 380-acre terminal at Pier T, TTI builds these record-long trains connecting the Port of Long Beach to BNSF’s Logistics Park Chicago Intermodal Facility in America’s heartland. TTI dispatched its first 12,000-foot train in May. Today, these two-mile marvels depart almost weekly, sometimes twice a week.

The faster a container gets to market, the more cost-effective it is to ship. For cargo going from the West Coast to the Midwest, on-dock rail is the ticket for moving import containers from vessel to destination as swiftly as possible. The same holds true for U.S. exports from the Midwest bound for overseas markets. In both directions, longer trains offer savings through economies of scale.

Opened in 2002, TTI is among the world’s most modern marine container terminals. In addition to a yard serving trucks, it boasts a dedicated storage area for containers leaving by rail and 16 tracks – 13 for loading and three for arrival and departure – for approximately 100,000 linear feet of on-dock rail to sort, switch and build trains.

In partnership with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Pacific Harbor Line, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, TTI dispatches and receives between eight and 11 trains of varying lengths a day. For the first seven months of 2014, TTI moved 38.92 percent of its cargo by rail – outpacing both the current average of about 24 percent for the entire San Pedro Bay port complex and its future goal of about 35 percent.

With all three arrival and departure tracks extending 12,300 feet, TTI has the infrastructure and layout to build the long trains efficiently. “Pier T’s on-dock rail can easily handle the volume of the new generation of big ships calling at the Port of Long Beach,” Hope said.

Building any train on a busy terminal – let alone a supertrain hauling enough containers to fill more than two football fields – is a complex operation. The details include assembling the right mix of rail cars and sequencing containers so the train can be sorted at its destination with the least amount of switching. “We’re putting together the safest, most efficient double-stacked string of 20- and 40-foot containers,” Hope said. “Our goal is to have no empty slots on the rail cars, and we take pride in routinely filling 95 percent of all the rail cars leaving Pier T.”

With ILWU workers loading and PHL crews handling the switching operations, TTI assembles the 12,000-foot trains in less than 24 hours and has them ready to roll by sunrise the next morning. BNSF provides the rail cars and the muscle –
seven to eight line-haul locomotives, two in the middle of the train – to generate about 30,800 horsepower needed to move the cargo off the terminal, up the Alameda Corridor, over the Cajon Pass and more than 2,000 miles to Chicago’s intermodal hub.

TTI is a model for the rest of the Port, said Carlo Luzzi, Manager of Rail Transportation at the Port of Long Beach. “It’s all about efficiency and speed to market. The more long trains we can build on-dock, the lower the costs from shipper to shelf.”

In addition to cost savings, use of on-dock rail reduces roadway congestion, conserves fuel and provides clean air benefits. On a ton-per-mile basis, trains are up to four times more fuel efficient and three times cleaner. “Every container that moves by rail eliminates one truck trip,” Luzzi said. “With TTI’s longest trains, that’s more than 800 truck trips off our local roads and highways.”
Given the widespread benefits, the Port is committed to increasing the percentage of containers that move by rail. “Ensuring all our container terminals have the rail infrastructure they need to maximize their use of on-dock rail is a key component of the Port’s capital program,” Luzzi said.

Specifically, the Port is investing about $1 billion – 25 percent of its 10-year capital improvement budget – to modernize existing on-dock facilities and expand support tracks across the board. On-dock rail projects at Pier G and Middle Harbor are under construction. Near-dock expansions are the Green Port Gateway/Pier F support yard and track realignment work at Ocean Boulevard and Harbor Scenic Drive, and both are due to be completed in spring 2015.

The Port’s signature rail project is the proposed Pier B On Dock Rail Support Facility. The rail yard proposal, which could add multiple sets of 10,000 linear feet of staging tracks to the Port, is undergoing environmental review. The Port expects to circulate a draft environmental impact report in 2015.

“With more big ships calling, the Pier B project would provide the needed rail infrastructure for all our container terminals to build longer trains on-dock,” Luzzi said. “It also accommodates the needs of new shipping line alliances by creating greater flexibility to marry trains from multiple terminals headed for the same hub.”

Meanwhile, the Port is offering an incentive to ocean carriers that increase the volume of loaded containers hauled into or out of the Port by rail. The Port’s Incremental On-Dock Intermodal Incentive Program offers a reimbursement of $5 for every additional 20-foot equivalent unit transported by on-dock rail above a vessel operator’s 2013 total. The incentive is available for the 2014 and 2015 calendar years.

While 12,000-foot trains regularly leaving the docks are a new phenomenon, trains of the same length leaving inland rail yards are not. Throughout the region, numerous grade separation projects across have been completed, are under construction or are pending to ensure safe and free flow of traffic for both vehicles and trains.

Having the infrastructure and expertise to build long trains generates more business, Hope said. Seeking to build on that competitive edge, TTI is in talks with BNSF to add additional destinations for its 12,000-foot trains in the near future.

Twelve years ago, TTI set the record for the first 8,000-foot train built on-dock at the Port of Long Beach. Within a few years, it raised the bar again by loading the Port’s first 10,000-foot train.

That TTI has been able to grow its trains to keep pace with demand speaks to the Port’s ability to work with its tenants and customers in planning for the future, Hope said. “The Port had the foresight to build this. It puts us ahead of the curve.”

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