Technology in the Intermodal World
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Technology in the Intermodal World

By Chris Giltz, SVP - Operations, The Evans Network of Companies

Chris Giltz, SVP - Operations, The Evans Network of Companies

For those of you not familiar with intermodal, it is the movement of shipments by more than one mode. In the freight transportation world, that means that while a truck will pick up the freight from the shipper and a truck will deliver the freight to the consignee, the main portion of the movement will be done by either a railroad or steamship line. What makes intermodal transportation so complex is that each shipment can have four or five parties involved in moving cargo from the shipper to the consignee.

For a typical shipment from China to the US (hardly a rare occurrence), you would have a trucking company in China moving the container to a port. A steamship line would then move it to a port in the US. Finally a truck will move it from the port to the consignee. More complex examples might include a steamship line and one or more railroads. Compare that to a domestic truck move where one company picks up a load in Kansas City and delivers it using the same truck and driver to a consignee in Atlanta. Here providing real-time information on shipment status to the customer is easy and much simpler.

Our company handles the trucking portion of the shipment between either the port or rail terminal, and the shipper or consignee in the United States. With such a fragmented supply chain, communications between partners is critical. The track record of integrating supply chain partners in the intermodal arena is spotty at best. Many trucking companies in the field are small and may not have the technical capabilities.

But tying those partners together is critical. It's common to be able to see exactly where shipments are in the delivery process. When you purchase a book from Amazon you can see where that book is every step of the way. You receive an email trucking industry. While the timing is not yet determined, Electronic Logging Devices (ELD's) will be mandatory in the next few years. In addition to performing Hours of Service functions; these devices are GPS equipped. Many also allow for communication between the truck and the main computer system. It's relatively simple to utilize that data so that the status of a shipment is always available.

That's the easy part. The trick then is to tie in all the partners in the supply chain to integrate the systems. While not technically demanding, many trucking companies can have hundreds or thousands of customers. A simple task multiplied thousands of times can be daunting especially for smaller companies. But it's a task that needs to be done. It's just too glaring of a gap in what's expected with today's technology. The upcoming ELD rulemaking presents the perfect opportunity for intermodal trucking companies to close the information gap. For the first time, every trucking company will have the ability to see where all of their trucks are at all times. While the ELD’s are not required to be integrated with any outside software package, it’s a relatively simple task to perform that integration. Smaller companies would typically be running commercial software packages. They should encourage those software companies to build links between the major ELD suppliers and their software. For those companies running custom software, they can build the links to the devices they select.

Once intermodal trucking companies have integrated truck information real-time into their Transportation Management Systems, the benefits of sharing that data are tremendous. Customers can help drive change by requiring integrated systems. But even without customers requiring integrated systems, trucking companies should embrace this change. While at first glance it may seem expensive, the cost savings will be significant. Phone calls requesting routine updates will be a thing of the past. Carriers with superior ontime performance will be more clearly identified. (The current lack of reporting at times can mask less than stellar performance.) Spending administrative time updating customers' websites manually will also decline and eventually cease.

Decades ago, intermodal was a lowcost, low service alternative to trucking. That has not been the case for a long time. Intermodal is a highly reliable, cost effective transportation option. With the exception of the trucking portion, systems are integrated and data real- time for all aspects of the shipment. Too often that portion of the movement is still a manual process. Whether you agree or don’t agree with the mandate for ELD’s, it will soon be a reality. Intermodal trucking companies should use this opportunity to embrace the concept of real-time communications between the truck and their customers. This will finally make the service levels with regards to information match the service levels of the actual shipment.

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