End-to-End Intermodal Visibility, ‘Ship to Shore’

Written by Tom Forbes, Vice President, Navis Rail
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As freight transportation providers build up traffic volumes from pandemic-related lows, there remains a strong focus on supply chain visibility among ship operators, railroads and truckers. Additionally, shippers and beneficial cargo owners want better tools to see and track shipments from release to delivery, in the same way consumers track Amazon or UPS shipments. As consumers become more accustomed to better tracking and service standards, these capabilities are needed now at every stage of the transportation and handling process.

The next opportunity in supporting advanced supply chain visibility should take us beyond the tracking of shipments. This would be the full integration of planning and operational systems, and data across multiple transport modes. For example, if a single planning application (and set of data) extended from the ship, to the container terminal, to the on-dock rail, to the rail intermodal yard, the carriers would have more opportunities to optimize and track this extended process.

One critical area of system and data interfaces is in intermodal movements, and the related data, from the marine container terminal to the inland intermodal yard. This deserves some examination. The current technical environment for improving intermodal planning is very good, since devices, software and APIs from transport providers and third parties, for tracking cars, containers and individual shipments, are becoming available and affordable. Additionally, the integration of data feeds across systems is rapidly evolving and data is more easily shared among multiple transport modes. But is intermodal data available at all transport stages and for all interested parties?

Data and Tool Availability

Based on our observations and discussion with clients, railroads rarely directly exchange files with ocean carriers. Currently, there is data sharing between the ocean carrier and the ocean terminal operator, but not necessarily for the benefit of the railroad. This means that there is an opportunity for more data to be exchanged between vessel operators and rail companies, most likely through the terminal operating system (TOS), which already needs to “understand” what is being offloaded from the vessel and what is being loaded onto trains. This TOS intersection between the ocean carrier and the railroad could provide the common interface for all downstream transport modes.

Key information usually flows with the containers. For example, for containers arriving on a vessel, terminals will receive container information (weight, custom, hazardous, etc.) from the ocean carrier and as the boxes are loaded and departed on a train, the container detail is shared from the terminal to the railroad. From a planning and data visibility perspective, the container-oriented information should be made available to the railroad as early in the process as possible.

At the container terminal level, there exists an additional data management obstacle. According to research done by Navis, the biggest data challenge in the ocean terminal environment is not the lack of data, but the inability for terminal personnel to access, analyze and apply the data. According to a survey, co-sponsored by Navis a few years ago, 28% of terminals are still using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to analyze data in their operations – while another 28% are using no tool at all. In our interactions with many global rail operators, we see that a similar situation exists regarding data analysis. Terminal management systems, with integrated rail planning and management capabilities can remedy this situation.

Planning and Analysis

In a recent article by Jim Blaze in Railway Age (Enough Intermodal Market Hype! – October 1, 2020), he reported that this year’s rapid intermodal turnaround was difficult for railroad planners. He suggested that if rail planners had been informed two to three weeks before the loaded ships started to arrive at LA/Long Beach, the railroads might have been able to have crew, power and other assets in place. Jim went on to say that the Port of LA announced that it has introduced an advanced vessel consignment sharing process so that such data might be available in the future.

It makes sense for the ports and the railroads to know the volume and types of containers that they will be receiving when a ship sets sail from Asia. Planners would then be able to have the rolling stock, crews and network capacity in place when the containers hit the pier. Additionally, more complete rail data would be available to share with the customer, earlier in the supply chain.

In the container terminal, the container and stowage data is used to create, view, and manage the intermodal train work. Users of systems such as Navis’s N4 Rail, can enter and manage full train visit detail information, including the train, service, direction of the train, various arrival and departure times and weight limits. This data is stored and made available to other Navis tools and for export to other systems.

At this point, the detailed container/rail information can be shared with railroad planning and operational systems. This will seamlessly provide the shipment status throughout the movement of the intermodal train from the ship, to the container terminal, through the freight rail network, to the intermodal terminus.

Software, such as the Navis Rail Planning platform, can use the data for immediate analysis and optimization of rapidly changing planning scenarios, such as the impact of the recent spike in intermodal activity on the west coast. The same data can also be communicated to rail and trucking operational systems through APIs, EDI, and other methods of data transfer, or sharing of business objects.


Many railroads have tools in place to provide real-time, or near real-time, cargo status to their clients, and more tools are now being developed by the carriers and third parties. The expansion of this view to include detailed information on incoming or outbound international containers would dramatically improve this visibility. But this information is not readily available to all segments of the transportation process.

Transportation providers and software developers should take the immediate step of making sure that international shipment information is made available to the complete supply chain. This could start at the time of booking, but should be validated as the containers are tendered to the ocean carrier for loading. The availability of this data would close one of the largest remaining gaps in shipment visibility for all stakeholders.

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