While the first real experiments with Trailer On Flat Car (TOFC) and Container On Flat Car (COFC) traffic took place in the 1950s, there was insufficient traffic of either variety to travel outside of general merchandise trains until the 1970s (apart from the Santa Fe experiment between Chicago and Los Angeles (the Super C) that started in 1968). Real developments in this area had to await deregulation in the 1980s.
By the 1990s, Intermodal Freight represented one of the two major freight flows in contemporary North American Railroading.
BNSF has a major intermodal lane between the Seattle area and the Chicago area, using the former Great Northern main line across the northern USA and then the former CB&Q between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Locomotives run through from terminal to terminal (or perhaps gateway location). Thousand mile inspections and on-line locomotive refueling take place at Havre, MT, and Northtown (Minneapolis). In Chicago, these trains use the intermodal facilities at Western Avenue or Cicero Yards.
The BNSF (and before that the Santa Fe) line between Barstow (collecting traffic from both Northern and Southern California) and points east is one of the major arteries of commerce in the United States. Without it (and the similar but smaller flows on the Union Pacific, mainly on the Sunset Route), the international trade with the Far East (mostly Pacific Rim) through Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors would grind to a halt due to inland transport congestion. This is especially clear from the intermodal traffic flows. There are major intermodal traffic flows carrying imports from Pacific Ocean ports at Los Angeles, Long Beach, and the Bay Area to other parts of the country served by the former Santa Fe lines, especially Texas and the Chicago area, with forwarding to other railroads in Chicago and Kansas City. There are also major flows westward from Willow Springs and Corwith yards in the Chicago area, and Logistics Park in Joliet, IL, to west coast points carrying package traffic and long-distance hauls for over-the-road carriers.
This intermodal traffic runs over the same route as the passenger trains from Los Angeles to the Belen/Albuquerque area of New Mexico Observation from passing trains suggests that these are the major traffic flows on these lines. The flows continue along the Freight Transcon to Clovis, where there is a split between trains heading for Texas (mainly to/via Alliance Yard just north of Fort Worth), either via the former Santa Fe via Sweetwater, or, since the BNSF merger, from Amarillo over the former Fort Worth & Denver, and those continuing along the Freight Transcon towards Chicago (for delivery or forwarding to other railroads) and/or the Southeastern USA. The latter split off at Avard, OK, just north of Waynoka, and take a former Frisco routing to Memphis, where they are handed off to eastern railroads for delivery (such as NS, for Atlanta), or to St. Louis.
There are five grades of intermodal service on these lines: Z—Expedited (also trains once symbolled with numerals); Q—Guaranteed; P—Priority; T—Standard; and S—Stack. The intermodal traffic over this route approximately doubled between the early 1990s, when the line between Barstow and Belen was still Double Track, Rule D-251 (current-of-traffic), and the mid 2000s (after the conversion of Barstow to Belen to Two Main Tracks, CTC), when that line was carrying over 100 trains a day.
Intermodal trains are generally hauled by about 13,000 hp (three 4,400 or 4,300 hp DC locomotives) on the head end, especially in the mountains. The hottest trains (the UPS TOFC trains between Willow Springs (Chicago) and North Bay (Bay Area)—later Stockton—or Los Angeles (the only all TOFC trains on the line) are assigned between 4.0 and 4.5 hp/ton, with other intermodal trains having at least 3.5 hp/tom.
Locomotives run through from terminal to terminal (or perhaps gateway location). Thousand mile inspections and on-line locomotive refueling take place at Barstow (as required, for trains originating in or heading to Los Angeles points, such as San Bernardino, Hobart Yard or on-dock terminals), Belen, NM, and Argentine (Kansas City) on the line to Chicago. In Chicago, trains off, or destined for, the former Santa Fe Transcon use the intermodal terminals at Willow Springs and Corwith Yard.
BNSF has started, in 2009, an intermodal lane between the Seattle area and Memphis, via Lincoln, NE. This routing uses the former Northern Pacific from the west coast as far as Billings, MT, and then the BNSF Central Coal Route (with a short piece of the BNSF Northern Coal Route) the rest of the way to Memphis. Memphis, in this context, is a gateway to Norfolk Southern or CSX for onward transit to the southeastern US.
Starting with dedicated trains for the APL container shipping company in about 1990, from the Pacific Ocean ports at Seattle, Portland, Oakland, and Los Angeles/Long Beach, UP has developed a strong intermodal traffic flow over the Overland Route between the West Coast Ports and the Chicago area, with further flows over the eastern railroads. The intermodal flow from the Oakland area uses the former Western Pacific route that formed the western portion of the Original California Zephyr Route to Salt Lake City, joining the original Overland Route at Ogden, where the flow over the Salt Lake Route from Southern California also joins. The flow from Seattle/Portland over the Oregon Short Line joins the Overland Route at Granger, WY.
Locomotives run through from terminal to terminal (or perhaps gateway location). Thousand mile inspections and on-line locomotive refueling take place at Salt Lake City (? and/or Ogden?), and North Platte. [Any others?] In Chicago, intermodal trains off, or destined for, the Overland Route use the former C&NW Global I and Global II terminals.
The vast majority of UP (and even more so for the former SP) intermodal traffic for the east, from Southern California, flows over the Sunset Route, SP's traditional transcontinental line to Texas and points east. The most congested portion of the Sunset Route is the line between West Colton (Rancho) and El Paso, a route traversed by all SP trains heading east from Southern California (and the majority of UP's trains doing the same thing, since the UP/SP merger on September 11,1996). Unlike the equivalent BNSF line across northern Arizona and New Mexico, the Sunset Route in the mid 2000s was still mostly single track, CTC (and had been CTC since the 1950s), and has proven to have an upper capacity limit in that condition of 53-54 trains per day. Since the UP/SP merger, UP has been scrambling to add a second track between West Colton and El Paso, with the aim of achieving the same capacity as the BNSF line.
At El Paso, between a third and a half of all intermodal trains take the Golden State Route to Kansas City and/or Chicago (using the former Santa Fe direct line from Kansas City, in some cases) for delivery or forwarding to other railroads. Another split occurs at Sierra Blanca, about ninety miles east of El Paso, where (since the SP/UP merger) trains headed for Dallas/Fort Worth, Shreveport, Memphis and forwarding to the Southeastern USA via either of these gateways, take the Texas & Pacific route directly towards those destinations, with traffic destined for Memphis turning onto the Chemical Coast routes (Texas Eagle Route for northbound traffic or Cotton Belt, for southbound traffic, depending on the direction of the traffic flow) in east Texas and traffic for Meridian taking the KCS "Meridian Speedway" onwards from Shreveport.
Only a quarter or less of the flow west of El Paso now takes the Sunset Route east of Sierra Blanca (but about half did, before the SP/UP merger). In SP days, around half of the traffic (trains destined for Memphis or St. Louis, mostly as gateways for points further east) turned north at Flatonia onto the connecting lines leading to the Cotton Belt, with the rest, then as today, continuing to Houston and/or New Orleans (the latter also a gateway for transfer to other railroads).
Locomotives run through from terminal to terminal (or perhaps gateway location). Thousand mile inspections and on-line locomotive refueling take place at West Colton (as required, for trains originating in or heading to Los Angeles points, such as on-dock terminals, the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility just north of the docks, or one of several intermodal yards), El Paso, Kansas City on the Golden State route to Chicago, Alliance (Fort Worth) on the North Texas route, and Kirby (San Antonio) on the continuing Sunset Route.
UP continues the SP flow of intermodal traffic between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California (and intermediate points) along the I-5 Corridor. Locomotives run through from terminal to terminal (or perhaps gateway location). Thousand mile inspections and on-line locomotive refueling take place at Roseville.
KCS provides the bridge for intermodal traffic between the UP at Shreveport (see above) and Norfolk Southern at Meridian, MS.
At the end of 2008, CN operates one daily intermodal train each way between Roberts Bank, BC and Brampton, ON, and another daily intermodal train each way between Edmonton, AL and Brampton. Blocks of cars are swapped between each direction's pair of trains at Edmonton. Previously, both pairs of trains had operated through to Roberts Bank. These trains, providing a rather sparse level of service compared to the lines further south, are routed across the CN transcontinental line through Winnipeg, western terminal of a third pair of intermodal trains serving Brampton. East of Winnipeg, . . .
NS continues to run the intermodal trains that Conrail ran under the Mail-xxx symbols (originated by the PRR?), using the NS portion of the Water-level Route, west of Berea, OH, and the former PRR lines east of Berea, including the Broadway Route east of Alliance, OH or Rochester, PA, as far as Harrisburg. These trains use Harrisburg, PA, Morrisville, NJ, Kearny, NJ, (both accessed over the Harrisburg line), or Baltimore (accessed over the Port Road), as their eastern termini, and Chicago (Ashland Avenue, 47th Street) or St. Louis as the western terminus. An overall summary of the changes in traffic flows between Chicago/St. Louis and the Northeast from the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad era, through the Conrail era, and into the devolved Norfolk Southern and CSX era, is here.
NS handles intermodal flows coming from the west coast, received at both the Memphis and Meridian, MS, gateways, taking the former over the Memphis & Charleston, via Chattanooga, to Atlanta. and the latter over the former Southern Main Line to Birmingham, AL, and Atlanta. An overall summary of the traffic flows between Chicago and the various destinations and origins in the Southeast throughout the merger era between the 1950s and 2000s is here.
CSX continues to run the intermodal trains that Conrail ran under the TV-xxx symbols (originated by the New York Central), using the former B&O line from Chicago to central Ohio, the former Indianapolis Line to Berea, OH, and the CSX portion of the Water-level Route east of Berea, using the West Shore route from Selkirk Yard for access to New Jersey. An overall summary of the changes in traffic flows between Chicago/St. Louis and the Northeast from the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad era, through the Conrail era, and into the devolved Norfolk Southern and CSX era, is here.
An overall summary of the traffic flows between Chicago and the various destinations and origins in the Southeast throughout the merger era between the 1950s and 2000s is here.