Ports, carriers, and tech companies are working on better intermodal visibility

In July, the Port of Los Angeles announced the launch of a cargo-volume predictor, called Horizon, to provide shippers, terminal operators, truckers, and rail carriers a picture of container movements at the port six months in advance. The feature, an addition to the port’s larger digital technology platform, uses an algorithm based on historical and trending volume data to issue monthly volume updates half a year ahead.

Tools like Horizon, if used across other North American gateways, could help alleviate the visibility problems facing intermodal transportation. Intermodal volumes have been surging as demand for goods increased during the pandemic, yet rail carriers are having difficulty matching capacity with demand—largely because they don’t have visibility to incoming containers. Many shippers also lack visibility once shipments hit the intermodal system.

The Amazon effect, as some call it, means that shippers and consumers alike want to track shipments from release to delivery—for e-commerce packages and business-to-business shipments—but this capability is laggard in the intermodal sector. “In today’s supply chain, everyone needs to know where their shipments are at all times,” said Ward Proctor, director of business solutions at TransmetriQ, a provider of an intermodal visibility tool.

Pier 400 at the Port of Los Angeles
Pier 400 at the Port of Los Angeles

Complex Supply Chain

The good news is that ports like Los Angeles, as well as transportation providers and technology developers, are putting systems and processes in place to improve the situation. These tools include direct connectivity, but they are also increasingly employing artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to provide more accurate estimated times of arrival (ETAs).

Part of the problem for intermodal is that its complex supply chain includes many stakeholders, such as ports, drayage truckers, warehouses, intermodal marketing companies (IMCs), and railroads. Visibility to the first mile is “where the fog sets in,” according to Glenn Jones, global vice president of product strategy at Blume Global a provider of an intermodal technology platform. “Knowing that freight has begun its journey is the start of being able to predict ETA.”

Many railroads have tools in place to provide cargo status to their clients, noted Tom Forbes, vice president of Navis Rail, a planning platform for freight railroads. “The expansion of this view to include detailed information on incoming or outbound international containers would dramatically improve this visibility,” he added. “But this information is not readily available to all segments of the transportation process.”

One challenge is that railroads rarely directly exchange files with ocean carriers. “There is data sharing between ocean carriers and ocean terminal operators,” said Forbes, “but not necessarily for the benefit of railroads.” That is where a tool like Horizon at the Port of Los Angeles could help extend the availability of data.

Truck and transtainers on a container terminal
Truck and transtainers on a container terminal

Intermodal Visibility

TransmetriQ is developing a…

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