By Chuck Crumbo
Published June 20, 2012
GREER, S.C. — A shortage of rail cars used to haul vehicles from the factory to distribution points appears to be hampering transportation managers at U.S.-based auto plants.
Citing a May 18 report by TTX Co. — a firm that handles car and light truck shipments for the automakers — Automotive News reported that 81,470 vehicles were waiting to be shipped. The industry prefers a number closer to 69,000 vehicles.
Railroads mainly use two types of multi-level rail cars to transport automobiles. Manufacturers decide which type of car they need — the bi-level car with two levels for loading and the tri-level car with three levels — based on the height of the vehicles to be loaded on to the rail car. (Photo/Norfolk Southern)
Most shortages are afflicting the Midwest, but Southern auto manufacturing facilities like BMW in Spartanburg County are keeping an eye out for potential problems.
“We are aware of national rail car issues and work closely with our logistics partners to manage our shipments to ensure we are meeting customer expectations,” said Sky Foster, manager of corporate communications for BMW Manufacturing Co.
BMW, which produces about 1,000 vehicles daily at its South Carolina plant, is the largest auto exporter in the United States. Last year BMW shipped more than 192,000 vehicles worth $7.4 billion from Greer via Norfolk Southern to the Port of Charleston for transport to 130 global markets.
A spokesman for Norfolk Southern, which operates 20,000 miles of railroad tracks in 22 states and serves every major container port in the eastern half of the United States, said there have been occasional shortages of multilevel auto carriers during the year.
The shortages are the result of increased demands for shipping capacity from the automotive manufacturers, said Robin Chapman, Norfolk Southern spokesman. “They are producing substantially more vehicles based on consumer demand, and need more rail capacity to get their cars to their dealers.
“The return of vehicle manufacturing capacity to the industry has placed added pressure on the multilevel fleet in 2012.”
Shortages are often spread out geographically and vary depending upon the daily demand at each manufacturing facility, Chapman said. The nation’s large railroads pool their multilevel equipment used to haul cars and light trucks, Chapman said.
“This pool improves efficiency and access to equipment for the railroads and the auto manufacturers while reducing miles that the railcars must travel for the next load of automobiles,” he said.
The velocity of rail cars in the multilevel fleet has picked up this year as the railroads move the vehicle shipments from point-to-point, Chapman said.
“Chicago is a major interchange for the Eastern and Western railroads with limited capacity, and there are often backups trying to get multilevel railcars through this interchange,” Chapman said.
The rail car shortage does not seem to have an impact in car shipments to two of the Southeast’s ports — Charleston and Brunswick, Ga.
Charleston reported in May that 15,887 units were shipped through its roll-on, roll-off facility at the Columbus Street Terminal, up slightly from 15,698 units in May 2011. The numbers include both imports and exports, a spokeswoman said.
For first five months of the 2012, Ro-Ro traffic was up more than 26% at Charleston to 96,427 units compared with 76,305 for the same period in 2011.
The Port of Brunswick’s Colonel’s Island terminal, which accounted for 98% of April’s Ro-Ro business for the Georgia Ports Authority, handled 59,926 units for export. April was a record month for Ro-Ro traffic, the ports authority said.
Ford, GM and Mercedes ship their vehicles to overseas markets through Brunswick.
Looking ahead, Norfolk Southern will be adding a substantial number of multi-level cars to its fleet this year and in 2013, Chapman said.
Orders for rail cars the company is now receiving were placed in 2011, Chapman said. The company has not disclosed how many multilevel rail cars it has received.
“We continue to invest in the automotive business as companies like BMW implement their plans for growth,” Chapman said.
Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-401-1094, ext. 204.