By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT

For agricultural equipment manufacturers such as John Deere and CNH Case New Holland, mile-long unit trains are playing an integral role in getting combines to customers in Russia, former Soviet states and elsewhere throughout the world.

Far more efficient and cost-effective than trucking individual combines from the US Midwest to a global seaport, the unit train approach allows scores of pieces of equipment to move together by rail from factory to port of departure.

‘Now, it is a rare exception for us to truck to Baltimore,’ said David Panjwani, manager of international logistics for Moline, IL-based Deere & Co.

Increasingly over the past five years, Deere has favored using unit trains to move export equipment from its manufacturing facility in East Moline to the Port of Baltimore. The journey takes six days, which Panjwani termed ‘fantastic.’

During the peak export season, which runs from March through June or July, unit trains may carry Deere equipment to Baltimore at nearly a weekly pace, according to Panjwani.

In late April, one such train constituted what Maryland Port Administration officials are calling the largest rail shipment in the history of the Port of Baltimore. The train stretched for 6,048 feet (1.15 miles) and included 89 flat cars carrying Deere combines plus seven cars toting Case New Holland combines. Most of the flat cars carried two combines apiece.

‘Accommodating this size train was not a problem,’ said Sam Azzarello, the Maryland Port Administration’s general manager for logistics, as he watched the long green-and-yellow snake roll its way through the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

‘We had our game plan well in place,’ Azzarello continued. ‘The team of logistics professionals, both from MPA and Norfolk Southern, came up with the plan that ensured easy implementation.’

In fact, the big move required coordination with other rail carriers as well. The Deere combines moved on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) train from East Moline to Chicago, where the cars were handed off to the Norfolk Southern. The Case New Holland combines moved on a Union Pacific train to the Chicago handoff point from a factory in the central Nebraska city of Grand Island.

Dave Czerniejewski, senior director of North American logistics for CNH Case New Holland, commented, ‘We have a very efficient rail loading facility at the Grand Island plant. It’s very productive and cost-effective to put the units on rail.

‘By doing this unit train, it’s more effective ’ on both ends,’ Czerniejewski added, noting that the combines arrive at the port all at once, in proper unloading sequence, as opposed to individually via truck.

The record late April shipment was typical of those for CNH in that all the units headed to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region on a Wallenius Wilhelmsen vessel. Czerniejewski said he sees such shipments continuing to increase in frequency as global demand grows for production of corn, both for food and for making ethanol.

‘Right now, the Port of Baltimore transit time is the best to get it to this region,’ Czerniejewski said.

Deere & Co.‘s Panjwani said one of the key reasons his company utilizes the Port of Baltimore is that each of the primary roll-on/roll-off carriers used by Deere calls at Baltimore. In addition to Wallenius Wilhelmsen, they include Atlantic Container Line (ACL) and Atlantic Ro-Ro Carriers Inc. (ARRC).

‘It is very clear and evident that the Port of Baltimore is investing in ro/ro for the short-term and, very important to us, for the long-term,’ Panjwani said.

In the case of the record late April shipment, the Deere combines wound up sailing on four separate vessels, with 111 units going to CIS countries, 41 to Russia, six to France, four to Germany, three to South Africa and two to England.