Rail to River: As WV Prepares for its First Rail-Truck Container Port, Can Rail-Truck-River Be Far Behind?

The State Journal
29 May 2013
By Jim Ross

West Virginia is about a year and a half away from joining the container freight shipping industry, and there are efforts underway to expand that mode from truck and rail to water-based shipping, too.

Don Perdue, executive director of the Wayne County Economic Development Authority and a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, said construction of the intermodal facility in the Wayne County community of Prichard is proceeding well, and current estimates have it opening next fall.

The West Virginia Public Port Authority is handling negotiations with potential users, and indications are that some large companies within trucking range of Prichard are interested, Perdue said.

Prichard is part of Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor, a route used by double-stacked container trains running from Norfolk, Va., to Chicago. At Prichard, containers can be loaded or offloaded, and they can be warehoused. Prichard is along Norfolk Southern tracks, U.S. 52 and the Big Sandy River, which forms the border between West Virginia and Kentucky in that area. Prichard is a short drive from downtown Huntington.

Container shipping is the big thing now in freight traffic, and Prichard is the only intermodal facility planned in West Virginia itself. Two other container corridors run through the Eastern Panhandle — one for CSX and one for Norfolk Southern — but Prichard is the only loading and warehousing facility planned in West Virginia.

And while most of the talk about Prichard deals with rail and truck traffic, the Nick J. Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University is studying whether container shipping on the Ohio River and its tributaries is a feasible idea.

Patrick J. Donovan, director of the National Maritime Enhancement Institute at RTI, said container traffic is the big thing in global logistics and it services markets that are largely served by ocean, rail and truck shipping.

One thing keeping it from being a big thing in river shipping is the orientation of transportation markets. Most container shipping is east-west, while the Mississippi and Ohio rivers are mostly oriented to north-south shipping, he said.

"We have some challenges in the inland system because of geography," Donovan said.

The Ohio River is part of the federally designated U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration M70 highway, a river route that runs from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River to Kansas City on the Missouri. The RTI started looking at the Ohio River only, but the Maritime Administration said the M70 had to go to Kansas City, Donovan said.

Adding the Mississippi and Missouri rivers allowed M70 to connect with the M55 marine highway, which runs from New Orleans to Chicago.

Along with geography, there are differences in who uses the different segments of the Ohio. Coal, coke and aggregates dominate river traffic above Cincinnati, while agriculture products make up a larger percentage of cargo below Cincinnati, Donovan said.

The development of the rail-truck intermodal facility at Prichard allows the possibility of water movement of containers beginning or terminating in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

Donovan said some people in shipping say container-on-barge won't work because barges are too slow, and there may be reliability problems, but they overlook a couple of things. One is that shipping containers by rail can include expensive warehouse time, he said. The other is that a different kind of vessel is needed to move containers as opposed to bulk commodities such as coal.

Boats on the river today use 20th century technology, but container shipping on rivers requires a newer technology and a newer strategy, Donovan said. So, RTI is working on what a container vessel on the river would look like, and it's not a towboat pushing a barge, he said. Instead, it would be more like container vessels operating on rivers in the Baltimore and Hampton Roads areas.

"We call it the marine pickup truck," Donovan said.
It would be about 400 feet long — the length of two coal barges. It would be no wider than 110 feet, as that is the maximum width of locks on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. Depth would be another limiting factor. The Ohio and Kanawha are designed to allow barges to be as deep as nine feet — or 10 or 11 if river conditions are right.

A 400-foot catamaran container vessel could use CNG or LNG for fuel, and in some cases it could draft as little as 2.5 feet, which would make it viable for use on the Big Sandy.

Frank Betz, chief operating officer of RTI, said such a container vessel would be faster than a towboat pushing a coal barge. Their speed is about 10 mph maximum downstream, while a 400-foot container vessel could make 13 to 15 knots, which is about 15 to 17 mph, he said.

Container-on-barge shipping would provide lower engine emissions, less congestion on roads and less dock time for containers, Betz said.

The downside is that commercial navigation is not supported on the Big Sandy as far as Prichard. The intermodal site is several miles above the area where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges to keep the channel open for barges carrying coal or petroleum products, and the river has some curves in that area, but Perdue said those problems can be overcome.

"Altogether it's a very strong possibility it could be a barge offload facility in a few years," he said.

While barge traffic is heavy on the Kanawha, too, there might not be much opportunity for container shipping on that river, Donovan said. When it comes to the M70, "you're either on the main stem or you're not," meaning a container port needs to be close to the Ohio itself, he said.

Prichard is about 13 miles up the Big Sandy, so it would be on the edge of being viable as a container port. On the Kanawha, there are few docks between the mouth at Point Pleasant and about 40 miles up the river in the Nitro-St. Albans area.

Even with all that, river movement of containers is not a sure thing, Donovan said.

"We need more things to happen in our market — the Pittsburgh market and the Huntington market — to see containers in our area," he said.

Once the Prichard intermodal facility opens and introduces global-based container shipping into the southern West Virginia market, the market can grow, Donovan said.

A terminal on the CSX National Gateway corridor outside Pittsburgh would serve northern West Virginia shippers, but there's a question about whether it would lead to container-on-barge shipping in that area because of the conditions and restrictions on locks and dams there, Donovan said.