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Container Business Grows at
Portland Intermodal Facility

by Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press, May 3, 2018

While the number of containers moving through the Port of Portland's intermodal facility has grown,
a competitor said the operation has done little but cut into private business.

Containers await movement at Terminal 6 Port of Portland. More export containers are switching from trucks to railcars at the Port of Portland's intermodal facility on their way to Seattle and across the Pacific Ocean.

While the port is optimistic about the venture's prospects, a competitor claims it's done little but divert business from the private sector.

After a "spotty" January, the rail transload facility at the port's Terminal 6 moved 1,536 containers in February and 2,181 containers in March, said Ken O'Hollaren, its marine marketing director. Those numbers include export and import containers.

The final numbers aren't yet available for April, but O'Hollaren said he expects the number of containers handled to remain stable or grow.

"We're on an upward trend," he said.

Shippers of straw, hay, seeds, grains, potatoes, wood products and other agricultural goods relied on Terminal 6 for access to Asian markets, but ocean-going container carriers stopped calling on the facility about three years ago.

Apart from lower productivity blamed on a prolonged labor dispute with the longshoremen's union, the inland port cannot accommodate increasingly popular megaships and isn't a major import destination.

With the loss of ocean container shipping in Portland, exporters were forced to send containers to more distant ports in Seattle and Tacoma.

The port has since settled its disagreement with the longshoremen's union and recruited the Swire ocean carrier company to call at the facility, but container exports remain much lower than in the past.

Re-opening Terminal 6 as an intermodal facility was intended to allow exporters to transfer containers from trucks to rail rather than trucking them all the way to Seattle and Tacoma.

Truckers could then deliver more than a container per day, which isn't possible when driving to ports along Washington's Puget Sound.

At this point, two ocean carriers, Cosco and CMA CGM, are using BNSF Railway to ship containers to and from Portland's Terminal 6, O'Hollaren said.

The port is hopeful BNSF will attract more ocean carriers to the facility, but both parties are pleased with the arrangement and expect it to continue beyond the current six-month trial period, he said.

The Port of Portland has traditionally been oriented toward container exports, which have been stronger than container imports. This imbalance is a problem because imports are necessary to make empty containers available for exports.

Initially, the intermodal facility had two north-bound trains of export containers for every one south-bound train of import containers, but the disparity has since narrowed, O'Hollaren said.

"Cargo is moving in both directions," he said.

Due to the new intermodal facility, Northwest Container Services -- which also provides rail transload services in Portland -- expects to handle roughly one-third fewer containers this year, said Gary Cardwell, the company's divisional vice president.

While the corresponding drop in revenues won't affect the company's ability to operate, it's had to lay off 18 people, or about one-quarter of its workforce, he said.

"I'm not sure what benefit the port has really brought to the table with this service," Cardwell said, noting the T6 intermodal facility is duplicating a service his company has offered for 30 years.

An analyst's report commissioned by the port has found that cargo moving through the Terminal 6 facility hasn't been sufficient to make it financially self-sustaining, he said.

The facility is now operational thanks to an $11 million settlement with a former terminal operator, but that doesn't solve its fundamental economic problem, Cardwell said.

"That's going to run out eventually, and then what are we going to do?" he said.

Related Sites:
Terminal 6 Business Study Executive Summary Advisian, January 2018

Related Pages:
Here's Why Portland Won't Get New Shipping Container Service Anytime Soon by James Cronin, Portland Business Journal, 5/9/16

Mateusz Perkowski
Container Business Grows at Portland Intermodal Facility
Capital Press, May 3, 2018

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