Minot, ND welcomes the first intermodal rail service in North Dakota this October. This is an intermodal project for ND has been in the making for twenty years. The benefits of intermodal rail service for the state mean a 15-25% reduction in shipping costs for moving goods to international ports with a smoother hands-off approach. Gov. Doug Burgum touts this as a “game-changer” for ND by allowing processors, manufactures, and producers to load standardized containers directly on to railcars in Minot and ship them internationally.
What is Intermodal Freight?
Intermodal transportation is a way to transport goods using multiple modes of transportation (rail, trucking, or sea) without repackaging goods to different containers based on the type of transport used. Reducing handling of goods, users will see the increased speed in moving freight, reduction in potential damage, and with less handling comes a lower overall cost.
Intermodal in ND
Overall, with the vastness of ND, there are supply challenges with having containers available for transport. The movement of enough goods in and out of the region from a specific point such as Minot will determine the operation’s success.
In 2010, an intermodal-type transfer facility opened in Minot, ND, with a primary focus on loading and unloading oil-related products, as well as large volumes of agricultural goods. The ND Port Service operated the transfer facility with a container yard. This is where the new rail services will operate. The previous facility was not considered intermodal but a multimodal operation—the differentiation being how the goods need repacking according to the shipping method. Repacking also utilized more workforce than an intermodal approach.
The ongoing struggle to increase the shipping of ND goods has been a collaborative effort. The ND Port Service, which is no longer in operation, made many attempts to secure transportation on the West Coast, making shipping containers plentiful for ND processors and producers, but ultimately could not find success due to financial troubles.
The ND Trade Office launched the ND Intermodal Initiative (NDII) in 2014, working with the ND Department of Agriculture, ND Departmnet of Commerce and the ND Port Services to understand the state’s needs better.
New access to more competitively priced transportation will help ND businesses more effectively move their products bound for international markets. The new service will reduce the backtracking that many shipments make by going to Minneapolis first. Often shipments headed to the West Coast for overseas sales are trucked east to Minneapolis only to be loaded on railcars shipped back westward for their international destinations.
The New York-based company Rail Modal Group (RMG) will operate the 135 acre facility, shipping out rail cars westward to the US’s largest ports. RMG manages two similar operations in Nebraska and Texas with BNSF railways. Moving goods directly west will reduce shipping times across the country direct to West Coast ports, specifically Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. “They (Minot) had a beautiful ramp and facility built in a great location just sitting there, so it is a good opportunity for RMG” says Monica Oberting, Vice President for External Affairs for RMG. She highlighted the warm welcome they have received in ND and the rewarding experience it has been to hire many local employees, and their plans on adding more staff to the team in Minot.
The first empty containers arrived in Minot on October 13th and will leave filled with ND goods in the upcoming weeks. RMG focuses more on agricultural goods which is welcomed in ND, with companies already supporting the line with pulses, edible beans, and specialty grain products. This rail service is a new option for producers, manufactures, and processors to move their goods more effctively. RMG Minot is optimistic in its weekly train service and plans to maintain the stability and consistency needed for success. The flow of shipping containers required to maintain the rail has been historically difficult, and ensuring that enough empty shipping containers are available, and enough full shipping containers are leaving makes the rail service logistics a challenge. Oberting says their goal in five years is to have three trains going through Minot on a weekly basis. Additionally, they plan to increase the storage facility overtime.
With anticipation for the many new opportunities for ND ahead, Drew Combs, NDTO Executive Director, says, “In ND, the agricultural producers will most certainly benefit from this new service. We also see great benefits for all other ND industries, including manufacturing. Opening up Minot for intermodal service creates a direct connection with our Asian trading partners and a more cost-effective means to provide ND products.”
In 2019 more than $114 million in goods were exported to Asian countries from ND. While this number has fluctuated over time, primary export types include machinery and parts ($33 million), as well as agriculture products such as soybeans ($25 million). ND companies also have opportunities in aircraft parts and other agriculture products in grains and cereals.
This project has come to fruition with the cooperation of many entities over the years, including the ND Governor’s Office, ND Congressional Delegation, private industry, ND Legislators, the ND Trade Office, ND Departments of Commerce, Transportation, and Agriculture, City of Minot, and the Minot Area Development Corporation.
The idea of intermodal transport and the versatile containers are nowhere near new, as it has been practiced in England predating both rail and motorized vehicles. Wooden pallets are considered a type of intermodal containers making an appearance in WWII as an easier way to transport goods from warehouses to trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft.
Standardization of the containers became vital, as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) became involved to standardize containers for multiple modes of transportation. Now known as ISO containers, they have standardized dimensions in three sizes with several variations.
The rising use of standardized containers grew steadily from the 1960s onward. According to the Association of American Railroads, intermodal rail traffic tripled from the 1980s to the 2000s. Additional ingenuity in the stacking, securing, and mechanization around transporting these containers has continually improved the process for more efficient, effective, reliable, and secure transportation of goods.
As we look forward, the ND intermodal operation is a meaningful step towards opening our eastern trading partners’ doors. For ND, it will increase the ability to ship across the country more efficiently, and there is potential for an uptick in overall access to ND goods. That access could mean more jobs and more opportunities for increased production throughout the state in a variety of industries. More to come on this exciting time for trade in ND.