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Friday, September 04, 2009

BNSF's new Memphis yard to lift cargo, economy

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If a seaport were built on dry land, it would look a lot like Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad's new Memphis intermodal facility, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports. Giant cranes loom over vast expanses of tracks, roads and parking, soon to be piled high with oceangoing shipping containers.

Virtually completed and tentatively set for an October startup, it's also a $200-million vote of confidence in the city's strategic importance in moving consumer goods across the nation.

Officials at BNSF, the nation's No. 2 railroad, say they have redefined state-of-the-art, combining environmentally friendly container-handling equipment with high-tech operations and security. Global-positioning-system technology will direct movement of trucks, trains, freight and people around the 185-acre site. Truck drivers will gain entry by putting thumbprints in a biometric reader.

Production cranes -- 90 feet high and 270 feet across -- straddle six, 8,000-foot-long sets of track, two truck lanes and space for containers stacked four wide by four high. The electric cranes will replace diesel hydraulic cranes that are significant polluters; their expansive reach will eliminate a major amount of interior truck movement of containers, known as hostling.

"There's no other facility like this in the United States," said Scott Jenkins, Memphis intermodal facility manager for BNSF.

The hub has taken shape over the past couple of years along the north side of Lamar Avenue between Perkins and Shelby Drive. The site was sparsely populated last week, except for an occasional truck on its way to the smaller, existing intermodal yard. Jenkins said federal inspectors were certifying cranes for operation, and training sessions for crane operators were scheduled for this week.

The expansion nearly doubles BNSF's intermodal capacity in Memphis and provides on-site potential for one million lifts a year. The current 50-acre yard did 318,000 lifts, nearly full capacity, in 2006, but volume has declined as the world economy has contracted.

The new hub positions BNSF to benefit from a rebound in shipping, when it comes.

"That's the big deal. If you built a regular intermodal facility on this footprint, you'd probably get 500,000 (lifts). There's nowhere else to go," Jenkins said. "Obviously, it puts us in a real good position. We know (volume) is going to come back. It's a matter of having capacity when it does.

BNSF is taking advantage of Memphis's geography and infrastructure to bolster intermodal business, viewed as a greener alternative to long-haul trucking. Union Pacific, Canadian Northern and CSX Transportation also are using newer intermodal hubs here, and Norfolk Southern will build the next one, in Fayette County.

Jim Covington, Greater Memphis Chamber vice president of logistics and Aerotropolis, called BNSF's hub "a very impressive investment in this economic period. The idea that all five of these railroads have picked Memphis as a coordinated location for these yards is a confirmation of our logistics geography. It means there are a lot of smart people out there who think that Memphis is a rail center."

Down the road, BNSF will bring jobs and economic growth to its immediate vicinity and the Memphis area, Covington said.

"The yard supports all kinds of different industries in the surrounding area," he said. "You've got warehouse and distribution jobs. You've got drayage jobs where trucks move goods from one facility to another. All of that's going to pick up."