With king coal relegated to the back burner in favor of low-cost natural gas, intermodal is on the verge of wearing the crown as the top revenue producer for major railroad companies.
Intermodal already carries the bulk of the total freight for Virginia-based Norfolk Southern Corp. It accounted for 49 percent last year compared with 45 percent in 2011 (see "Intermodal trends" below), according to the company's public filings.
And the Harrisburg region plays a major role, with two large intermodal rail yards in Dauphin County.
The latter, which is slated for completion in the third quarter of 2015, will add three pad tracks and 10 support lines. The project will boost annual lift capacity to nearly 350,000 intermodal boxes, meaning trailers transferred between trains and trucks.
"That's the projection. It will take some time after we're finished to ramp up to that total, and it depends on market demand," said Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman.
Intermodal is creeping up to 50 percent nationally (see "National perspective" below).
Contractors are currently grading the area off Penhar Drive and Paxton Street in preparation for the new tracks.
Rutherford employs 88 people, not including the truck drivers who pick up and drop off trailers. Most of the on-site staff are contractors and not Norfolk Southern employees.
The expansion will add 48 full-time jobs, Pidgeon said. And it could generate up to 400 jobs in the community over time. That includes truck drivers, which should indirectly benefit service sectors, he said.
"Businesses which use intermodal transportation want to be near terminals because it reduces cost and shipping times, and that means intermodal terminals support jobs both in the railroad community and beyond," Pidgeon said. One railroad job can support four or five nonrailroad jobs, he and other industry professionals said. And a fully loaded intermodal train can take as many as 280 trailers off the road.
Norfolk Southern received $25.5 million in federal funds administered through the state Department of Transportation for the Rutherford project.
Adding in its Franklin County intermodal facility, which opened last year, Norfolk Southern will have spent more than $186 million on regional intermodal projects when Rutherford is completed.
"Norfolk Southern is one of our largest members and (a) significant investment by them is a harbinger of good things to come for the entire rail network, including many of our smaller Class II and III railroads who partner with them," said Josh Wilson, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Keystone State Railroad Association.
"The Harrisburg region has historically been a key hub for rail freight movement through the state and connects the area to the worldwide marketplace," he said. "An increase in activity here speaks well for both economic viability of the region, the railroad industry specifically and industry in general."