A guest post by Daniel B. Kuhn, UDOT Railroad & Freight Planner
One of the most impressive sights in the diverse world of freight transportation in Utah is that of a lengthy Union Pacific Railroad double-stack container train speeding along at 60 MPH or more. These trains have been a common sight on select Utah railroad lines since the mid-1980s when transcontinental double-stack operations began. Known as intermodal trains in railroad parlance, these special trains carry domestic and international cargo containers two high on specialized rail cars that reduce weight and fuel consumption by being articulated into sets ranging from three to five cars in length.
Intermodal freight transportation combines the best of highway and rail service, combining trucking’s speed and flexibility with railroading’s fuel efficiencies and economies of scale when moving mass quantities of containers. Trucking will continue to dominate freight movement across North America inasmuch as most freight moves short distances or requires speedy delivery which railroads cannot match. However, while Utah’s primary freight network highways are in superb condition, the freight highway routes in many states are not. This combined with the fact that trucking is usually more expensive than intermodal is diverting a growing amount of freight to the railroads.
One key advantage railroads have with intermodal freight service is their ability to run longer trains with the same number of crewmembers. Here in Utah UP intermodal trains have grown from 80 to 100 cars in length to as much as 200 cars. The use of environmentally-sensitive, high-efficiency diesel-electric locomotives placed at strategic locations within a given train, and operated via computer-aided radio control from the lead locomotive, has made these huge trains possible. This practice, known as Distributed Power Units (DPU) is also used on other types of freight trains running in Utah.
Most of the freight carried by Union Pacific’s intermodal trains is passing through Utah en route to and from west coast seaports and Midwestern and eastern cities, Salt Lake City is also home to one of Union Pacific’s largest intermodal freight terminals. The Salt Lake City Intermodal Terminal (SLCIT) is located on the west side of the city along 5600 West (State Route 172) between the S.R. 201 freeway and Interstate 80. SLCIT’s location gives trucks serving that facility quick access to the primary freight network highways that link the Wasatch Front with the rest of the Mountain West region.
Utah is already the crossroads for long-distance trucking in western America, having the highest truck traffic percentage (23% of total traffic on Utah highways is large trucks) of all 50 states. Providing good highways to move the truck freight heading to and coming from Union Pacific intermodal trains at SLCIT is one way UDOT supports Utah’s economy and business community, and the growing intermodal freight business sector here in the Mountain West.
UP intermodal trains serve SLCIT every day en route to and from the Midwest and southern California, with the facility averaging around 500 containers and truck trailers, the later known as Piggyback when carried by train, being handled each day. On average from 900 to 1200 trucks arrive and depart SLCIT on a daily basis, with weekends being the busiest times. Utah’s highways are critical links in SLCIT’s ability to serve as the regional hub for intermodal rail and truck freight service. Containers and piggyback trailers are trucked as far distant as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming from SLCIT.
Northern Utah sits at the crossroads of two major UP intermodal routes, with trains bound for northern California and the Port of Oakland passing through Ogden and crossing the famous Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake, while southern California trains serve SLCIT and then head southwest via Milford and Las Vegas to the Los Angeles Basin. East of Ogden, the trains of both routes use the historic Overland Route mainline across Wyoming and Nebraska, which was part of America’s first transcontinental railroad. Double-stack trains do not use UP’s former Rio Grande mainline over Soldier Summit en route to Helper and Denver as the tall container stacks will not fit through the many tunnels along that route.
According to the Association of American Railroads, the major Class 1 rail carriers in the U.S. and Canada carried 13.7 million trailer and container loads in 2010. While this amount sounds large, truck freight on our highway system was between four and five times that amount. However, rail intermodal is expected to grow at a rate of around six percent each year through 2022 according to the American Trucking Association. Depending upon future economic conditions, the sight of those long and colorful double-stack trains will continue to be an increasing part of the Utah transportation scene, further reinforcing Utah’s status as the freight and logistics Crossroads of the West…