Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Intermodalism flexes its "domestic" muscle

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Far be it for me to enter the culture wars here concerning family (how it's defined, what it should aspire to), save for one observation: It's easier to apply various values if one is around the family enough to actually do it—and intermodalism can contribute.

While this rail advocate can enjoy singing the 1963 C&W pearl "Six Days on the Road" when I'm on the road myself for an arduous two hours during vacation, it's worth noting that the long-distance trucker's life has never been an easy one. The song's protagonist is a hard-workin', one-woman man who's heading home after a long run, with a little help from his friends: "I'm taking little white pills, And my eyes are open wide."

It may have sounded romantic (and rebellious, per the 1960s) once, but it's a new millennium and, true to the predictions of many boosters of freight intermodalism, the game has changed, really changed.

intermodalChecking the website of my alma mater, CNNMoney, late last month, I came across reporter Aaron Smith's "Tons of trucking jobs ... that nobody wants." That's certainly noteworthy and newsworthy as the U.S. struggles to establish any substantial economic upward momentum, right? Smith noted, 'There are as many as 200,000 job openings nationwide for long haul truckers, according to David Heller, director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Association. Truck driver demand is also set to increase, Smith added, before quoting Heller again, the association rep saying, "Nobody wants to drive a truck."

Well, make that long-distance truck, six-day truck trips, and Heller's quote might ring true. Make that job an intermodal one, however, and we're talking about one local roundtrip (maybe two on a good day) with infinitely better chances of getting home that night, most nights. Leave the long distance itself ... to the railroads.

As the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and Intermodal Association of North America (IANA) have steadily reported throughout this year, that seems to be happening more and more, with domestic intermodal moves (rail-to-truck) showing strength once more likely seen in international (ship-to-rail, ship-to-truck) moves. Committed longstanding intermodal players, such as J.B. Hunt, Schneider International, and UPS, are being joined by the likes of Federal Express and (possibly) the U.S. Postal Service.

No surprise, then, but still a significant indicator, that on my recent auto jaunt on one of the nation's Interstate highways I happened to spy a J.B. Hunt billboard advertising—make that virtually trumpeting—"good jobs" available now. That's good for those struggling to find work, of course good for J.B. Hunt itself, and good news for J.B. Hunt's railroad partners and the railroad industry.

It's also good news for me, not just because I'm a railroad blogger but also because I prefer my fellow road travelers employing safe driving practices, the kind that "little white pills" can't reliably provide. Rail-to-truck intermodalism offers an economical, environmental, and "family-values" domestic alternative that makes "Six Days on the Road" a potential anachronism, save for two of the final lines: "My hometown's coming in sight; if you think I'm happy, you're right." Cue the fiddle.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.