Savannah illustrates that rail is powerful but alone not enough

K+N Maersk

The port of Savannah in the state of Georgia, US has opened the latest stage in the expansion of its ‘Mason Mega Rail Terminal’, with the addition of a further nine rail tracks, resulting in a facility with 18 tracks.

This is another element in the expansion of Savannah and the wider complex of ports in Georgia. It also illustrates how important landside logistics capabilities are to container ports.

Savannah, on the US East Coast, has been suffering from the sort of congestion seen at US West Coast ports with containers dwelling in the port up 50% year-on-year at 80,000 TEU according to the port’s management. Volumes are robust, with year-on-year volumes up 8.7% in October, to a record high of 504,350 TEUs.

The ability to move high volumes of containers out of terminals using rail is very attractive. Of course, rail in North America has not been free of the effects of congestion. The major intermodal hubs in the North and North East have suffered from an imbalance of container flows, and the productivity of rail services is key to relieving the pressure on trucking capacity around container terminals.

However, it may not be as simple as just building more railways. The latest numbers from the Association of American Railroads show that rail volumes have been falling for several months, with the week ending November 13th seeing a 4.7% fall and containers down an extraordinary 9.7% compared to the same period in 2020.

The Senior Vice President of the Association of American Railroads, John T. Gray, explained the major reason behind these falls is that “for railroads, the supply chain challenges are being felt most keenly in our intermodal terminals where rail customers have been unable to clear their freight as quickly as they and the railroads would like”.  

It appears that even inland terminals are suffering the effects of both a lack of availability in truck chassis but also in the capacity of warehouses to strip the containers. The result has been containers and consignments backing all the way through the intermodal hubs and into the container terminals.

This underlines both the universal importance of road freight, but also the necessity of wider logistics infrastructure to be balanced and aligned with different types of traffic flows. Far from being more localised, supply chain movements have become more globalised and logistics infrastructure is struggling to cope with that.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 18 November 2021

Author: Thomas Cullen