Letting the train take the strain in Virginia

container volumes
Figure 1: Container Volumes by Activity at Virginia January-July Period, 2018 vs. 2019. Source: Port of Virginia
containers
Virginia is continuing to target terminal rail investment

AJ Keyes looks at Virginia’s recent port growth and awareness of the importance of intermodal rail as it operates in the highly competitive US East Coast region.

With New York/New Jersey to the North and Savannah/Charleston to the South, the port facilities at Virginia are sandwiched between these two, largescale, container regions
where substantial volumes are handled.

Virginia’s container terminals have deep water depth and large-scale, modern, high-capacity facilities. Yet unlike New York/New Jersey with its massive local cargo consuming
regions and Savannah with its distribution centres and intermodal rail activities adjacent to the marine terminals, how does it overcome the geographic location and small localised hinterland to be successful?

To put the recent container port activity in Virginia into perspective, recent volume trends show that the port remains a viable option for shipping lines and beneficial cargo owners.

Technical Director for WSP’s Maritime Advisory Group in the UK, Dean Davison, explains further. “In the 2012 to 2018 period, Virginia’s total container volumes increased by an average of 5.2% per annum.

This compares to 4.4% per annum for New York/New Jersey and 6.7% per annum for Savannah and although Virginia’s starting volumes were lower, the port is clearly an important port of call on the US East Coast.”

Based on the year-to-date information available, then 2019 looks set to be an improvement on the position from 2018, as Figure 1 shows. Total TEU volumes are up from 1.62 million TEU in 2018 to 1.72 million for 2019, although small declines in loaded imports and loaded exports are being offset by increased empties – an indication of greater Asian containers probably being handled through the port and being returned.

With an estimated 35% of current containers moving at Virginia by rail, it is essential that sufficient capacity is available. It is, therefore, no surprise to see that there has been recent investment in this area of the port’s operations.

In June 2019 the size of the rail yard at Virginia International Gateway (VIG) was doubled, as part of a total terminal renovation costing $320 million which saw investment in ship-to-shore cranes and rail and truck connectivity improvements.

Yet with the port authority openly seeking to raise the share of containers moving via intermodal rail to 40% by 2022, increased capacity at VIG is required. This is a crucial factor, as WSP’s Davison notes, “Cargo shippers wants reliable and predictable service levels across the whole terminal. Efficient ship to shore crane moves are important, but it is pointless if the box then struggles to get out of the terminal on time or when required.”

John Reinhart, CEO at Virginia Port Authority is already fully aware of the objectives that need to be achieved, outlining initiatives to making sure import dwell times from vessel
discharge to the container being on an intermodal train moving to a key US Midwest market like Chicago are under 24 hours.

The port’s plans include improving velocity per hour in the rail yard with additional cranes and cassettes (which hold containers while the train is being assembled) to deliver 100
lifts per hour. During a recent announcement of fiscal year results, he confirmed that port volumes “are increasing and we are processing that volume with greater efficiency because we have completed the optimization at VIG, where we are on-line and fully-operational.”

At the same time, investment is also well underway at another major container facility at Virginia, Norfolk International Terminals (NIT), with planned investment more than 50%
completed. A total of 12 new container stacks served by 24 new rail-mounted gantry cranes are already working, following phase two of the stack expansion completed and phase three starting in June 2019 and the final phase four process just last month in September 2019.

With growing volumes in a competitive market, Virginia is continuing to invest in its facilities. Yet, most importantly, it is also aware that the ability to move containers away from the marine terminals is a crucial factor, if it wants to continue to be an effective option for serving the key US locations in the Midwest throughout Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Kentucky.

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