The Crunch: As the largest intermodal railroad moving about 1 million more units per year than its nearest competitor, BNSF Railway has strengthened its foothold in the retail market by prioritizing innovation. While its technology stands out in the space, BNSF also goes further with an Intermodal Solutions Team that takes a consultative approach to helping retailers optimize their supply chains. For these efforts, we’re recognizing BNSF with our Editor’s Retail Choice Award™ for Innovative Intermodal Transport Solutions.
The modern retail customer has high expectations of the brands they shop, but they don’t often pay attention to what’s going on behind the scenes. However, retailers understand the importance of logistics and supply chain in getting consumer goods from point A to point B.
Behind the curtain, retailers are making important decisions to ensure they have in stock the products that customers are looking for. What they may not realize is that a transportation system that opened America to rapid westward expansion in the 19th century is still innovating and playing a key role in freight transport.
While many retailers choose to rely on long-haul truckers that tend to put stress on an aging US highway system, they may not realize that intermodal transportation via the railroad system competes with trucks on cost, timing, and optionality, while handling more capacity and being more environmentally friendly. Intermodal freight makes use of ocean liner, truck, and railroad shipping by transporting containers or trailers by different modes to optimize a supply chain.
We recently spoke with Todd Strever, BNSF’s General Director of Intermodal Solutions, who explained some of the advantages of intermodal transportation and the innovative, consultative approach his company is taking to help serve retailers.
“Supply chains are like fingerprints; no two are the same,” Todd said. “So much of what we do is trying to understand what’s important for that specific retailer and showing how intermodal can support their needs.”
“If you go back decades, we pioneered intermodal, and it’s now over 50% of our portfolio,” Todd said. “This is a core competency of what our railroad does, so we’re extremely focused on it.”
This focus includes a lot of technological innovation in the space and a consultative approach to helping retailers optimize supply chain, and for its efforts, we’d like to recognize BNSF with our Editor’s Retail Choice Award™ for Innovative Intermodal Transport Solutions.
Advantages of Intermodal Include Capacity, Cost, and Optionality
Todd told us intermodal has three key advantages for retailers: capacity, cost, and optionality.
One of BNSF’s double-stacked intermodal trains can carry up to the equivalent of 280 truckloads reaching nearly all of the country’s major metropolitan areas. Environmentally conscious retailers, particularly big-box brands that sell a lot of products, can reduce a significant amount of carbon emissions. BNSF told us that in 2016, its customers were able to save 34 million metric tons of CO2 — the equivalent of getting 7 million cars off the road.
As far as cost and timing, intermodal competes directly with long-haul truckers with a base product that compares closely with single-driver shipping and an expedited product that’s similar in price and timing with team-driver shipping.
Many retailers might not realize just how customizable BNSF’s intermodal transportation system is. Options include standard and expedited service, international and domestic, a trailer product, container shipping, and temperature control for grocery products.
“We’re not one-size-fits-all,” Todd said. “There’s a huge menu of options that are available to shippers that can help them customize what they need.”
BNSF’s Intermodal Solutions Team Educates Retailers on a Range of Shipment Choices
As part of the Intermodal Solutions Team, Todd spends a lot of time and energy on consulting with retail clients and helping them understand how intermodal can fit into their unique supply chains.
Oftentimes, retailers leverage BNSF’s network as part of their complete intermodal product, which includes channel partners, like steamship lines and trucking companies, which package end-to-end transportation services that rely on the railroad system.
“Retailers are looking for seamless door-to-door solutions,” Todd said. “And intermodal offers that value in conjunction with many channel partners.”
The lack of awareness about intermodal positions the BNSF Intermodal Solutions Team to fill in the educational gaps and ensure retailers understand how the rail system can benefit them.
“My team’s job is to educate. Sometimes there are misconceptions about intermodal. The product has evolved, it’s innovated, it competes with trucking, and it looks completely different. So we spend a lot of time talking about how it is competitive, how the railroad invests in technology and capacity to be able to provide a very competitive product.”
Part of this technology is an in-house application BNSF calls the Intermodal Advisor tool. Retailers can submit raw movement data, and Todd’s team can calculate potential cost savings and environmental impacts made possible through intermodal transportation.
BNSF also has conversations with retailers about the benefits of co-locating to its logistics parks, which are strategically placed in major markets, including Chicago, Kansas City, and near the company’s home base outside of Fort Worth, Texas.
“Co-locating to one of these logistics parks lets retailers take advantage of access to greater rail and truck capacity. The close proximity to our rail hubs gives them more optionality,” Todd said.
Rail Transportation with an Innovative, Cutting-Edge Approach
What really stood out in our conversation with BNSF was some of the technology that’s being employed in an industry that traces its origins back to the 19th century America.
“For the last mile, truckers are using mobile app technology,” Todd said. “They’re using biometrics to check into our facilities with a thumbprint. We have automated gate systems, where the truck comes in, and a 360-degree picture of it is taken.
“When units are moving across our railroad, we have listening and vibration technology to ensure the rail cars are functioning correctly and that there’s not a bearing issue. All of these prevent service disruption.”
This commitment to innovation and service is why retailers choose BNSF for its intermodal solutions, and it’s also why we’re honoring the company with our Editor’s Retail Choice Award™ for Innovative Intermodal Transport Solutions.
“In 2016, we moved about 5.2 million intermodal units,” Todd said. “It’s an enormous amount of volume, and that’s international and domestic. If there’s a retailer out there that hasn’t fully considered intermodal or has reservations about it, I think they’re missing a big opportunity.”