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Periodically, business conditions change. These changes can have positive or negative effects on certain sectors of the freight transportation industry.

Intermodal transportation uses at least two modes of transportation (i.e. road, rail) to move freight. The intermodal option works best when the rail service provider has terminals within a fifty-mile radius of the origin and destination points and on major long haul (i.e. over 1000 mile) lanes. While intermodal volumes have grown over the past couple of decades, this business remains a niche market. The typical road/rail combo service is usually a few days longer than over the road transportation, but it is normally priced a few percentage points below truck service. This may be a pivot point for intermodal. Here’s why.

The US and Canadian Domestic Intermodal Freight Markets

Two hurricanes in the southern US and solid economic conditions in Canada and United States have been driving a tightening of trucking capacity. As it tightens, intermodal service can be an option on some freight shipping corridors. Shippers often look to intermodal service for lower freight costs. As truck capacity shrinks and spot market rates rise, this may create an impetus for shippers to migrate some traffic from road to rail.

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We have been hearing about the possibility of a trucking capacity shortage for several years. While there have been sporadic shortages in specific geographic areas, for particular modes, the predicted massive shortage never materialized. This year may be different.

Two major hurricanes caused major damage to homes and infrastructure in Texas, Florida and adjoining areas. Drivers and trucks are required in these areas to transport building materials, appliances, electric grids, and other needed supplies. Some drivers will likely take construction jobs to aid with the rebuilding effort and increase their earnings.

The economies of Canada and the United States are in good shape with historically low unemployment and solid GDP growth. Then there is the Electronic Logging (ELD) Device mandate that will restrict the utilization of some trucks and push some drivers out of the industry. This unique confluence of variables is likely to make an already tight capacity situation even tighter.

What can shippers do to secure the capacity they need to keep their supply chains flowing and serve their customers? Here are two suggestions.

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As we all know, freight capacity throughout North America is tightening. A shortage of drivers, new government regulations and rising fleet costs are making it increasingly challenging for trucking companies to operate their fleets. As a result, carriers are being selective in terms of the shippers for whom they will offer their fleet capacity.

Smart carriers are ranking their customers on the basis of profitability and ease of serving. Shippers must now make their companies and their freight attractive to their carriers to secure the capacity they need. These are some things they can do.

Run a Clean Operation

Simply put, shippers need to be organized. As carriers enter their customers’ yards, they want to find an available dock door and they want the freight and paperwork to be ready for pick-up. They don’t want to have to wait as other carriers to block their way. They also don’t want their customers to call them back 30 minutes after they left the yard to pick up an extra skid or two. In other words, trucking companies want consistency, reliability and predictability. They want to work with shippers that are efficient and keep their costs down.

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In a recent Stifel report, it was noted that the “mother” of all capacity shortages is expected to hit the United States in 2017 as a series of government regulations reduce the supply of fleet equipment by five to fifteen percent. Despite the efforts of carriers to raise pay, upgrade facilities and improve the lifestyle of drivers, annual turnover stubbornly remains at close to one hundred percent in many fleets. On the rail side, a huge upswing in the movement of energy products by this mode has had a deleterious effect on intermodal capacity and service. Wise shippers realize that trying to secure carriers on the spot market is a risky endeavor since this leaves them open to capacity shortages and rate volatility.

What can your company do to protect itself if there are capacity shortfalls?

Is your company ready for even tighter freight capacity? Will the integrity of your company’s supply chain be maintained in this ever-changing environment? What can your company do to protect itself if there are capacity shortfalls?

1. Bring your top performing carriers under contract

An important first step is to view your major carriers as business partners. As such, it makes good sense to negotiate formal multi-year contracts with capacity commitments and service guarantees. As you engage in these types of discussions, find out how your business fits within the parameters of their operation. Does your freight move on their primary traffic lanes? Do they have head haul or back haul in the reverse direction? Are you a valued customer?

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