Office of Operations Freight Management and Operations

I. Introduction – Matching Public and Private Sector Priorities

Global economic and security trends are putting increasing emphasis on reliability and speed of freight transportation services. These trends have significant implications for the types of infrastructure and government supported transportation programs that should be emphasized in the future to increase the competitiveness of America's business enterprises. Intermodal connectors, or the links that facilitate the transfer between modes, have been identified as one of the types of investments that have the potential to result in improved reliability and service levels. This paper explores changing freight transportation demand and shipper requirements and the resultant role and importance of freight intermodal connectors in the National Transportation System.

Transportation is often discussed by governmental agencies in physical terms – roads, rail track, airports and seaports. Investments in infrastructure and operation of facilities are important and necessary, but they are not the starting point for decisions regarding the movement of freight. Rather, the question increasingly asked by companies today is: "Will the goods arrive when specified?" It is not the mode that is important; rather it is reliability, transit time, efficiency and cost.

Once these key freight transportation characteristics and their role in ensuring American business competitiveness and supporting national security are understood, the priorities for the U.S. transportation system become more apparent. Within this context, the role and growing importance of intermodal connectors becomes evident.

Intermodal connectors tie the transportation system together. They are the means for moving cargo to and from ports. They keep time sensitive air cargo moving expeditiously. They tie the rail yards to the end users. When they are efficient, intermodal connectors can facilitate the "highest and best" use of each transportation mode. Conversely, when they are inadequate or congested, the connectors can be an obstacle to the seamless movement of cargo needed to support US businesses and national security.

This report:

  • Provides an understanding of the evolving role of freight transportation in maintaining a competitive business environment and effective national security;
  • Articulates the importance of intermodal connectors in providing an efficient, flexible transportation system that meets the expectations of businesses and national priorities; and
  • Identifies both the opportunities and barriers to improving intermodal connections.

The report begins with defining key terms and the legislative context for intermodal connectors. The changing practices and priorities in freight transportation are then summarized to provide a context and understanding of the new demands placed that must be met by the nation's transportation system. The implications for the U.S. transportation system and public investment are discussed in the final section. Opportunities for and barriers to achieving intermodal connector goals are also discussed within this section.

As part of the development of this report, an executive dialogue was held with key individuals representing shippers and freight carriers. The executive dialogue, which focused on the changing needs and priorities for the US freight system, served two purposes – it provided a private sector review of a draft version of this report and an opportunity for executive staff from the modal administrations to discuss firsthand the changing needs and priorities. Comments from the executive dialogue participants have been incorporated into this report. A summary of the executive dialogue is provided in Appendix A.

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