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Agforce Vice President Andy Tuley’s 2019 Intermodal Outlook

Precision in an Imprecise Market

2018 was a big year for precision railroading, and that’s an understatement. Some might go so far to say it was a “make or break” year, and I would have to agree – as long as those people also agreed that by December 31, 2018, we could conclude precision railroading probably checked all the boxes on the “make” side of the equation. Of course, that growth did not necessarily come easy for any of us.

According to the Association of American Railroads, intermodal volume rose 5.5 percent in 2018 alone. At Agforce, we experienced that growth firsthand with our partners. By the end of the year, it had become clear that precision railroading is well positioned to go mainstream in 2019, but not without a few growing pains. Thanks in large part to a confluence of factors that included precision railroading and tight trucking capacity, CSX, for example, struggled with delays and the resultant frustrated shippers on the precision railroading side.

Thankfully, CSX adjusted to the “new normal” quickly, modifying and improving service to accommodate pared-down service routes and closed ramp facilities. The use of the word “quickly,” by the way, is highly relative. It did not take CSX long by railroad standards to make some high-impact, significant changes, but to our customers, it felt like an eternity. We were relieved in October 2018, when we started seeing glimmers of the positive angles of precision railroading strategy emerge not just for CSX, but for our intermodal partners as well.

Accept it: Precision Railroading is Here to Stay

The shifts and evolutions that came in 2018 created an intense need for not just data, but the best data and the best analytics to go with it. Agforce brought both last year and is prepared to do so again in the coming year.

Precision railroading can be difficult to deal with on the client side when a railroad first engages in this format. Done right, the strategy dramatically increases efficiency and optimizes use of assets across the board at a railroad, but the implementation period can be rough. CSX picked a rough time to implement precision railroading, in the middle of a tight truck market, since companies were already looking for options to get product off their docks and onto the road or, instead, the rails.

When engaged in successful precision railroading, a railroad like CSX may “shed” operations (including ramps and associated operations) while expanding profits all the while. This can complicate things for shippers to no small degree.

“CSX has more pricing power [now]…particularly in intermodal truck-rail business,” wrote WSJ business editor Paul Page this past October. Precision railroading provides more pricing power for the rails but also causes massive operational changes which makes having a solid strategic partner that much more imperative. The ensuing volatility certainly had a huge impact on our industry in 2018, but we expect things to calm down in the coming year.

What does this mean for Agforce customers? As precision railroading grows in popularity (and it will with results like CSX is posting), it will be imperative that every company have a highly optimized intermodal strategy. Whether you have had the same basic process for years and are in need of a “revamp” or you have only recently begun working with or considering intermodal shipping, rely on Agforce to help you develop and optimize the intermodal strategy right for you.

Rising Rates Likely to Slow in 2019

Fortunately for the entire industry, 2019 will probably not be quite as volatile as its predecessor. At Agforce, we do not expect the same volume of rate increases that we saw in 2018, which were caused by the coupling of a very tight truck market and the emergence of precision railroading as a dominant trend in railroading. Intermodal growth in 2018 was definitely fueled by tight capacity in the truck market, but now it is certainly here to stay.

The trucking industry appears to be taking a pause of its own as 2019 begins, another positive indicator for you that rates on this side could settle in the coming months. After a huge surge in fleet expansions, orders for heavy-duty trucks in North America were 43 percent lower in December 2018 than they were a year prior and down 24 percent month-over-month, ACT Research reported in early January.

However, ACT vice president Steve Tam observed, order volumes are not so low that the hot freight market could be heading for a downturn. “Freight demand is still growing. Freight demands are still increasing; it’s just that they are growing at a lower rate,” he told WSJ. This certainly correlates to our own outlook, with the caveat that this applies mainly to lanes that still “fit” railroads’ new operations. Be alert: precision railroading can create logistical issues if a railroad’s new ramp pairings do not fit with the network customers are used to. Agforce is dedicated to helping partners identify the best fits between providers and customers and also between rail and trucking providers as this evolution continues.

It is Time to Take a “Deep Dive” of Your Own

At Agforce, we have shifted historical business to rail in many cases due to pricing or capacity constraints. This service shift and the ability to meet demand has made rail a better fit for our customers in certain cases, and those instances are increasing in number as more railroads nail down precision railroading and the positive results it can bring.

It is imperative your logistics partner is doing constant, analytical due diligence for you. This is what Agforce does for its customers.

The good news is we don’t expect the spot market to stay up where it is right now. In fact, we’re predicting it will come down while contractual rates rise a modest 3-5 percent in lanes that continue to fit the railroads networks. Agforce continues to carefully and consistently monitor service provider, freight volumes, ramp pairings and schedules to help you optimize your shipping strategies. Untiring attention to detail in this will play a key role in your company’s successful shipping, regardless of mode or combination of transport methods, in 2019.

 

Together, we can leverage 2019 to your advantage. Let’s partner and create solutions for your business. Give us a call at 877.367.2324 or email us at inquiry@agforcets.com.

 

Andy Tuley is the Vice President of Business Development at Agforce Transport Services. Tuley’s long history of work in the logistics and supply chain industry coupled with skills in freight, sales forecasting and P&L management uniquely qualify him to provide Agforce customers with the strategic industry analysis they need each quarter and in the event of industry disruption.