The Next Phase of Rail Intermodal Yard Automation

Written by Johannes Leholm, Senior Automation Engineer, Navis Professional Service Group
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BNSF Logistics Park Kansas City (LPKS) intermodal facility.

This past February, two automated straddle carriers were deployed as part of an automation pilot project at BNSF’s Logistics Park Kansas City (LPKS) Intermodal Facility. The straddle carriers can transfer containers between over-the-road (OTR) trucks and a grounded yard storage grid that includes designated transfer slots for rail loading.

The new automated equipment has the additional benefit of utilizing off-peak gate hours to stage containers for loading, a practice known as automatic grooming or housekeeping. Although this pilot currently occupies a fraction of the available terminal length at LPKS (400 feet of a total 8,000 feet), it represents a major milestone as the first U.S. inland rail site to implement automated straddle carrier technology.

BNSF’s LPKS facility is just one of a growing set of new automated container handling projects focused on intermodal rail yards. CSX recently implemented unmanned wide-span rail-mounted gantry (RMG) cranes at two of its rail yards. Qube Logistics, an operator in Australia, is building a fully automated inland depot with automated wide-span RMG cranes and straddle carriers. The site will provide completely unmanned container movements between trains and warehouses located in its logistics park, eliminating the need for manned drayage.

Qube Logistics Moorebank, Australia Inland Rail Facility

Interest in rail automation is accelerating as rail carriers and logistics hubs explore new operating models that incorporate advancements in automated container handling technologies. With additional intermodal automation projects under development in the U.S., China, Australia and South America, a global shift in operating strategy is emerging.

Are Intermodal Yards Ready for Automation?

Intermodal operators continue to invest in a wide range of solutions to modernize their facilities, with upgrades like automated gate systems already widespread. Railroads are now exploring cutting edge AI (artificial intelligence) solutions to improve their rail networks, including Automated Train Operations, machine vision inspection and maintenance, and automated switching control systems for classification and marshalling yards. 

It is clear that the intermodal industry is not only ready, but has been actively deploying different types of automated solutions for years. As there are a variety of automated solutions, it may be helpful to define two main categories of automation: equipment and process automation. 

Equipment automation is moving containers with unmanned container handling equipment. Process automationis the elimination of general human-dependent processes and workflows. Both equipment and process automation can eliminate labor-intensive tasks and demonstrate significant cost savings. 

Some examples of automated container equipment include: automated wide-span cantilever RMG cranes, automated straddle carriers, automated guided vehicles, automated terminal trucks, and automated rubber-tired gantries (RTGs). Note that these are generic naming conventions for automated equipment though some vendor-specific brand names may be more commonly known (e.g., AutoStrad from Kalmar).

Common examples of process automation at container terminals include: automated gates with container/chassis/truck/driver identification; automated container planning and equipment dispatching; automated event-capture and billing; automated train consist/manifest identification; automated railcar spotting, etc.

The degree-of-automation (DoA), or how often automated equipment requires human intervention to accomplish workflows, may vary depending on designated container handling workflows and control system capability. Automated yard cranes with well-defined movements and minimal variation in workflows can typically operate at a high DoA, with relatively few exceptions. In contrast, workflows with more variation typically require dedicated remote-controlled operators to regularly complete moves. Grade-of-Automation (GoA) is a synonymous term used in the urban transport industry with use-cases specified for automated trains and people-movers.

GoA is a term defined in standard IEC 62267 by the International Electrotechnical Commission and applies to urban moving systems management (e.g., subway train systems). The concept can be applied to container handling equipment with alternative automated tasks defined.

Equipment and process automation are not independent of each other and upgrade proposals should be carefully planned and considered in a holistic manner. Terminals that successfully implement container automation generally have inter-departmental teams (operations, IT, management) that map comprehensive business processes to understand impacted workflows and dependencies of proposed changes across the entire organization. Having well-defined and tested processes (including exception processes) is critical to achieving the best results. 

General best practices recommend early deployment of process automation solutions that minimize potential conflict with automated equipment. This is particularly important for automated equipment operating on trains, where tightly managed and controlled activity is critical to minimizing scheduling conflicts and interruptions. 

Intermodal Yard Variations

Rail yards have come a long way since circus loading days when trucks would regularly back up onto a ramp and drive a trailer onto a flatcar. Ramp operations were so common that the term ‘ramp’ remains synonymous with intermodal rail yards in the U.S., although ramps have been replaced by container handling equipment. 

Even with the widespread adoption of standardized container handling equipment, operational variations exist at intermodal facilities—usually according to differences in terminal size and location. Some of these variations can affect automated equipment designs and workflows. One fairly big variation is the use of wheeled container storage with shared chassis pools in the U.S.

Wheeled operations have quite a few benefits for rail yards. OTR trucks can simply park and pull pre-staged containers without requiring yard equipment. Moving wheeled chassis also results in fewer damage claims, and wheeled parking does not require reinforced pavement like grounded slots. The major downside is that this operation requires a lot of idle chassis—which are currently in extremely short supply across the U.S. supply chain and causing excessive delays for truckers. Some U.S. yards, like CSX Chicago 59th St. Terminal, have already transitioned to pure grounded operations. 

Conventional wheeled intermodal Union Pacific yard in Kansas, City, Mo.

U.S. intermodal yards frequently have separate grounded empty yards managed by empty container handlers. Yard hostlers, which are designed to connect and disconnect to wheeled container chassis, cycle containers between yard storage and rail tracks. OTR trucks can also move directly to rail operating equipment from the gate, bypassing yard storage. 

The majority of intermodal sites outside the U.S. primarily operate with grounded yard storage where OTR trucks are required to supply their own chassis and access terminal equipment—usually empty handlers, reachstackers, and/or RTGs—in the yard to receive and deliver containers. In some locations like Australia, trucks can be equipped with self-loading trailers that permit solo OTR truck receivals and deliveries at grounded facilities. 

Railway Crane Automation

As terminals grow in size, rail operators typically focus on upgrading the infrastructure and equipment operating over the railway. Modern wide-span cantilever RMGs are a popular choice for this upgrade. Wide-span RMGs give operators the ability to add more rail track space and container storage, and enlarge rail-side container buffer areas. Larger RTG cranes can also be an option when upgrading rail operations, but they have size limitations compared to RMGs. 

Wide-span RMGs at the intermodal terminal in Chengdu, China.

Once a terminal has invested in the infrastructure and equipment to support high-throughput rail operations with wide-span RMGs, automated solutions can be integrated with terminal systems for remote control operation and automation of RMGs. While the isolated cost of an automated solution is small compared to total equipment and infrastructure costs, operating risk can be introduced if a solution is not reliable. Common issues include system integration, process mapping and exception management, job scheduling, and the container interchange design for truck and rail. 

Automating wide-span RMGs has been accomplished at multiple on-dock and inland intermodal terminals. It is currently the most common type of automated intermodal rail operation and is compatible with both wheeled and grounded interchange operations. Some recent examples of large automated RMG rail operations include CSX Fairburn (Georgia), Rotterdam World Gateway, Long Beach Container Termina l(California), and Global Container Terminal Vancouver.

The configuration of wide-span RMGs at intermodal sites can differ from on-dock sites in that intermodal terminals typically require grounded storage space in addition to rail and truck interchange—the RMG effectively becomes a hybrid yard storage and rail crane. Marine terminals generally utilize existing terminal yard storage and focus RMG infrastructure on processing trains. For example, at the CSX intermodal facility shown, wide-span RMGs cover the following areas: perpendicular wheeled chassis interchange, container storage, and multiple rail tracks. 

Wide-Span RMG at CSX’s Fairburn, Ga., intermodal facility with Decoupled Wheeled Interchange.

Automating wide-span RMGs over different types of operating areas can introduce a few operational challenges. Automated rail cranes have a lower DoA than automated yard cranes because there is more variation in workflows, such as working on railcars and performing spreader rotations. The DoA of rail cranes is closer to that of unmanned quay cranes, where dedicated remote operators are standard. Conflicts may also occur between the automated cranes and manned ground crews working trackside. These challenges require an advanced set of solutions to minimize unplanned downtime. Container planning, equipment scheduling, ground crew scheduling, equipment control systems and process automation solutions all need to work together seamlessly for the best results. 

Yard and Dray Automation

BNSF’s straddle automation project at LPKS is a new approach to intermodal automation with a focus on the yard. Automated straddle carriers have a lot of potential working at intermodal yards because they are versatile: They can handle OTR moves, manage yard storage, and cycle moves to and from rail crane buffers. The primary downside to straddle carriers at marine terminals is stacking density limitations.

Fortunately, intermodal terminals are less dense and don’t typically require large cranes for yard storage. The non-manned LPKS layout is a mixed wheeled and grounded rail buffer operation. In the new automated area, straddle carriers free the railway RMGs from double touching—or lifting and setting each container entering the rail buffer. The new straddle carriers work with a different grounded layout than the existing RMG buffer blocks, with the straddle buffer positioned perpendicular to rail. 

Qube’s fully-automated intermodal site in Sydney, Australia will also use automated straddle carriers. Wide-span RMG cranes will be used to manage container storage and a second set of nested portal RMGs will be used as the primary rail cranes. The straddle carriers, which are shorter at 2 tiers high and known as shuttles, will be used for direct drayage between yard storage and the on-site logistics park. The automated straddles will be able to set and pick boxes at warehouses with special loading bays. Automated OTR exchanges will also be handled by straddle carriers. 

Qube’s layout and operational goals are ground-breaking for a few reasons, but primarily due to the automated drayage process. Automated drayage is projected to be the next phase of automated container handling development with autonomous OTR trucks forecasted to revolutionize the industry. While straddle carriers will likely not be the primary automated transport vehicle, it can make sense for shorter distances and integrated logistics complexes. 

While automated terminal trucks have the potential to replace manned terminal trucks at intermodal facilities, we expect to see these solutions continue to mature before major adoption. If they successfully demonstrate mixing with required manned equipment (e.g., reachstackers, manned OTR, RTG), larger grounded facilities would likely be most interested as they are not currently designed to connect to wheeled chassis. 

There are companies working on automatic yard hostlers, and this may be an option for wheeled intermodal operations in the future. Automatic coupling and uncoupling functionality (using an auxiliary robotic arm) has been demonstrated with semi-trailers, as the primary focus is currently on large warehouses and production facility operations. 

Building the Future of Intermodal Automation 

Intermodal facilities have recently received increased attention as disruptions in supply chains continue to expose critical labor and equipment shortages caused by the pandemic. Railroads in the U.S. continue to experience surging import volumes with workforces and equipment stretched thin. The situation has become so severe that multiple intermodal hubs have recently started implementing embargos, halting inbound cargo in order to ease congestion and clear backlogs.

Ongoing supply chain bottlenecks and shortages have emphasized the importance of technology planning and automation strategies at many organizations. The marine sector has demonstrated that modern automated terminals can reliably increase operational efficiencies with proper implementation methodologies and a data-driven approach to operations management. As more rail yards leverage and adapt these solutions to fit their requirements, the development and adoption of new automation standards will continue to transform intermodal rail.

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