How St. Louis Relies on a Port of Virginia Rail Connection

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The St. Louis region relies heavily on its Norfolk Southern- and CSX-served rail connection with the Port of Virginia, hundreds of miles away on the East Coast, to maintain its position “as one of the premier multimodal freight hubs and distribution centers in the United States.” The relationship was discussed in detail during the FreightWeekSTL 2021 conference, hosted by Bi-State Development, which operates the St. Louis Regional Freightway.

Aaron Katrancha, Director of Breakbulk, Ro-Ro and Rail Sales for the Port of Virginia, spoke with Mary Lamie, Executive Vice President of Multi Modal Enterprises at Bi-State Development. Lamie noted that the St. Louis Regional Freightway organization “is taking the lead in helping to make sure shippers are aware of the scheduled rail services and the benefits they offer.”

The St. Louis Regional Freightway is described as “a Bi-State Development enterprise formed to create a regional freight district and comprehensive authority for freight operations and opportunities within eight counties in Illinois and Missouri, which comprise the St. Louis metropolitan area. Public sector and private industry businesses are collaborating with the St. Louis Regional Freightway on marketing, public advocacy, and freight and infrastructure development.

“The Port of Virginia is one of the St. Louis region’s primary gateways to the world,” Katrancha said. “Dedicated rail service provided by Norfolk Southern and CSX connect the St. Louis region to the East Coast port, where more than $900 million has been invested within the past three years. That investment has doubled the Port of Virginia’s capacity and increased efficiencies for getting freight on and off both rail and ocean carriers. That translates into time and cost savings for importers and exporters in the St. Louis region who utilize the Port of Virginia and its ocean carrier services for global connectivity. 

“We have 30 weekly services with our ocean carrier customers, and that gives shippers in the St. Louis community or any of our inland connections a lot of options. You can get basically anywhere in the world from the Port of Virginia—Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, the India Subcontinent, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, South America—you name it. We have those global connections to offer the St Louis market.” 

Of its 30 ocean carrier services, Katrancha said 11 are Asian, “something that speaks to the transition in global freight flows in recent years. While it used to be that transpacific trade connected to the West Coast, today, the Port of Virginia’s largest trading partner, for both import and export, is China, with ships coming to the port via the Suez Canal and the widened Panama Canal. This has enabled the Port of Virginia to increase volumes coming through the port, and underscores the importance of its partnerships with the railroads.The rail connections between the intermodal yards in the St. Louis region and the Port of Virginia run very much like commercial airline service—on a very concrete schedule that our customers can set their watches to.”

From the St. Louis region, Norfolk Southern currently offers scheduled service six days a week, both on the import and export side. On the import side, once a train is loaded at the port, it reaches the Norfolk Southern Terminal in St. Louis in four days to be picked up by truck and driven to the end destination. Similarly, CSX on the import side offers scheduled service five days a week, with its trains reaching the CSX terminal in East St. Louis, Ill., in four days as well. On the export side, the CSX scheduled service operates once a week, but Katrancha said that “is driven by volume, and once there are new customers, it can increase.”

“The advantage for customers in the St Louis region is the combination of nearby intermodal terminals both Class I railroads serve that have a very efficient services connecting to the Port of Virginia, which is also building the capacity and efficiencies of our port terminals and harbor for the future,” said Katrancha. “The flexibility, the reliability, the efficiencies of that global connection are really key.Given the volumes moving through the Port of Virginia in recent months—even in the midst of COVID-19—it is evident shippers have already discovered this gateway and are benefiting from the investments that have been made at the Port of Virginia, including the addition of two new ship-to-shore cranes, which at 175-feet tall are the biggest in the Americas, capable of handling the largest vessels that come into the port area. Two more cranes will be added this year, providing even greater efficiencies.”

“November 2020 was an all-time record month for us at the port,” Katrancha said. “In March, we almost beat that record. That’s really saying something because March doesn’t usually beat November, the peak time for us. Despite the elevated volumes, with the efficiencies and capacity we’ve put into the terminals, our metrics stayed the same.”

Those metrics track truck turn times and how quickly a box can be loaded onto a railcar from the marine vessel or vice versa, “and it stayed within the threshold of 48 hours, which was key to the port during that time,”Katrancha noted. “Not only did they not miss a beat and were able to accept more vessels than they ever had previously, some of the vessels they did get were because they could not get into another port elsewhere. Some of these vessels were off schedule, coming from other places. We were able, within our berth windows, to efficiently work the vessels, move boxes between the stacks, work the rail and work the trucks to get them out the door. That is really a testament to not only our operations team and the great work they are doing out there, but also all that work that was put in to create these efficiencies.” 

The port is currently moving about 3.2 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) a year, which equates to about  1.7 million 40-foot containers a year. There is good balance between imports and exports, which is particularly important when looking at the rail side of the business,” Katrancha said. “Anywhere between 32% and 38%of our business moves by rail. It is a difficult network to run for the railroads and port terminals if you are moving in a bunch of empty railcars to be able to handle an imbalance between imports and exports. Our relative balance between imports and exports on the rail offers an added efficiency for our rail services. And that’s good for the shippers as well. That creates an efficiency .”

Katrancha said ocean carriers want to the most direct service for their containers, which are a big part of their assets. “The ocean carriers want to get those back as quickly as possible,” he said. “So, it’s important to get the containers into a market and then back out as efficiently as possible. We have the most direct rail service to and from St. Louis. We offer not only the cargo owners, but also the container lines, a very efficient product”

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