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VOL. 124 | NO. 202 | Wednesday, October 14, 2009


  

BNSF Railway Preps for Intermodal Yard Opening

By Eric Smith

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ELBOW GREASE: An electric crane moves a container across the 185-acre BNSF Railway Co. intermodal facility at Lamar Avenue and Shelby Drive. The railroad is putting the finishing touches on a $200 million renovation to the yard. -- PHOTO BY ERIC SMITH

Evidence of Memphis’ importance to the intermodal industry can be seen throughout town, but nowhere is it more apparent than at the intersection of Lamar Avenue and Shelby Drive, where nine-story cranes now dominate the warehouse district’s industrial skyline.

The orange equipment belongs to BNSF Railway Co., which is counting down the days until the multiyear, multimillion-dollar renovation to its Southeast Shelby County intermodal facility is complete.

As the Fort Worth, Texas-based company puts the finishing touches on $200 million worth of upgrades and expansions to its Southeast Memphis facility, and as the economy shows small signs of recovery, hub manager Scott Jenkins is excited about the possibilities.

When it opens completely next month, the Memphis Intermodal Facility will give the railroad an ability to perform up to 600,000 intermodal lifts a year. A full buildout of the yard will allow up to 1 million lifts annually should the railroad add more parallel tracks and cranes in the future.

Jenkins said planning for the renovated terminal began in 2002. The company began buying land around its existing Tennessee Yard in 2004 and started construction on a new 185-acre footprint in 2005.

“We could see as far back as 2002 that the way the volumes were going, we were going to have to do something at Memphis to keep up with (it),” Jenkins said.

Heavy lifting

The signature sights of BNSF’s expanded and modified terminal are its eight cranes. Five of them are called production cranes, which lift containers on and off the rail cars, and the other three are called stacking cranes, which stack containers and transfer them within the yard.

At 90 feet tall, the production cranes are twice the height of the old ones, Jenkins said. What’s important about the increased size is all the cranes work in concert to perform the yard’s heavy lifting. That reduces emissions because it cuts down the number of trucks that move throughout the facility, eliminating the need for trucks to move containers.

Also, because the cranes are electric (the old ones ran on diesel), the terminal has further shrunk its carbon footprint.

Jenkins said the crews are learning how to operate the cranes, which offer state-of-the-art technology to monitor the containers and chasses on the yard using GPS technology.

“We finished physical construction at the end of June,” Jenkins said. “We really got our hands on the cranes at the end of July, so we’ve had two full months of training.”

BNSF’s expanded yard includes four new buildings: an administration building fronting Lamar Avenue, a locker room facility for employees fronting Shelby Drive, a truck maintenance facility and a smaller checkpoint building.

The yard has 7,400 feet of track underneath the cranes, 2,000 parking spaces for truck chasses and the ability to stack more than 6,000 40-foot containers. That should keep the BNSF yard and its 110 intermodal employees busy for years to come.

“It’s all about capacity. It’s about having the ability to handle the peaks,” Jenkins said. “The valleys are easy; anybody can handle the valleys. There will never be a reason for us to look beyond this facility in Memphis. It’s really limitless now with what we’ve built, how much traffic we can handle.”

‘Where the freight is’

BNSF is one of five Class I railroads that have bolstered or will bolster their Mid-South presence, and even the yards that aren’t in the Memphis area have provided a boon to the city’s railroad resume.

Union Pacific Corp. in 1998 opened a regional intermodal yard across the Mississippi River in Marion. Canadian National Railway Co. and CSX Corp. in 2005 opened a joint intermodal terminal called Intermodal Gateway-Memphis at Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park near Downtown Memphis. And Norfolk Southern Corp. in July announced plans to build a $129 million intermodal terminal in Rossville, in neighboring Fayette County.

Jenkins said BNSF considered building on a greenfield site, as the other railroads did (or will do in Norfolk Southern’s case), but he said the chance to stay in the heart of Memphis’ distribution nexus was too good to pass up.

“If we had just taken a piece of land and started building on it, we could have gotten it done in half the time it’s taken this project, but trying to keep the existing facility functioning and not having it impact our customers, obviously, and still getting the construction done took a little longer,” Jenkins said.

Most important, he added, all the freight that comes in from Memphis originates on the West Coast, with 95 percent of that coming from the California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. And since the railroad’s local customers are within a few miles of the intermodal yard, it made sense to stay put.

“This is where the freight is,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what spoke loudest to us, was that we were going to stay where our customers were.”

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