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Truckers play waiting game over inland port

Truckers fuel up at a gas station off Interstate 85. (Photo/Bill Poovey)
Truckers fuel up at a gas station off Interstate 85. The industry in South Carolina is facing a lot of uncertainty as the inland port prepares to open this year in Greer. (Photo/Bill Poovey)

By Bill Poovey
Published July 30, 2013

Trucking companies have heard the predictions: There will be more trucks operating around the S.C. State Ports Authority’s intermodal container yard when it opens in October at Greer and fewer big rigs will be hauling intermodal containers between Charleston and the Upstate.

What truckers say they are not hearing: What deals are their customers being offered to switch from trucks to Norfolk Southern, their rail competitor given exclusive access to the new facility? Who will get the new port business?

Truckers say that for them, those answers will determine the winners and losers.

“That seems to be the most secretive thing in the world,” said G&P Trucking Co. President Clifton Parker, who said he is optimistic about new opportunities the port will offer.

Brian Gwin, a project manager for Norfolk Southern, could not provide exact figures on the cost to transport container by rail between the inland port and the Port of Charleston.  (Photo/Alison Miller)
Brian Gwin, a project manager for Norfolk Southern, could not provide exact figures on the cost to transport container by rail between the inland port and the Port of Charleston. (Photo/Alison Miller)
Parker’s company acquired land near the inland port with hopes of landing business there.

S.C. Trucking Association President and Chief Associate Rick Todd said there is a lot of uncertainty about what the new rail yard means for the industry that the organization he leads has represented since the 1930s.

“For the truck lines that have historically been doing a longer dray from Charleston to that point along Interstate 85 or back this will pose a challenge,” Todd said. “Some of their customers will continue to use them. Others will say, ‘Let’s price it out.’”

The ports authority said about 20% of its container business is handled by rail.

Norfolk Southern’s Brian Gwin, when asked at a forum about the rates to transport containers by rail for 212 miles between the Port of Charleston and the inland port, said “we wholesale our transportation services to the steamship lines, so I can’t necessarily give you a number and say this is the number we are going to be charging. ”

Gwin then said, “I think it will be a growing and learning process for everybody.”

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said the railroad’s trucking subsidiary, Thoroughbred Direct Intermodal Services, will do the drayage for BMW when the port opens and all the other companies will be selected by the steamship lines. Chapman declined to discuss the amount of cargo or the cost arrangement that Thoroughbred has with BMW.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the ports authority, has said that initially after the port opens it will take about 25,000 trucks off Interstate 26 and other highways, and eventually the overnight rail service will take 50,000 trucks off S.C. highways.

The inland port will link docks in Charleston with a container yard in the Upstate through an overnight train service.

Now, a loaded container is trucked from Charleston to the Upstate and unloaded. That empty container then travels back to Charleston where the port has a yard for empty containers. If a shipper needs an empty container, the process repeats in reverse: A trucker grabs an empty container from Charleston and drives it to the Upstate.

Once the inland port opens, empty containers can collect there for use by Upstate shippers instead of being driven back to Charleston. The ports authority predicts as many as 100,000 container moves annually through the $47 million inland port, which could serve customers in the Upstate, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia and the Midwest.

G&P Trucking Co., which also has locations in Columbia and Charleston, has bought another 10 acres in Greer for $850,000 — adding to its 14-acre operation — to expand as the port opens.

“Do we have any customer we bought that for? I hope so, but I don’t have that person today,” G&P’s Parker said.

“There are definitely going to be more trucks in that 5-mile radius of the inland port,” Parker said. “Everything is going to begin there and end there. Today it begins and ends in Charleston.”

Parker said that when told about plans for the port, “the first thing I did was hang up and start crying. But it is going to give the Upstate some options that today they don’t have.”

Parker said he is shopping for trucks powered by natural gas to do some of the dray work from the port in hopes that environmentally conscience customers will support fuel-efficient trucks.

“I think you are going to find small-truck facilities open all over the place in the Upstate,” he said. “I think there are a lot of Upstate carriers trying to figure out how to get in the intermodal game. In Charleston they are saying, ‘If you’re going to take my business maybe I need to move.’ Then you have people who are newcomers to the table and customers who may use their own trucks.”

Parker said he has been in the business for 36 years and what “we don’t know yet is 250 miles to 500 miles west of the Upstate, will be able to convert more of that business to that rail facility rather than it being trucked to Charleston? You can get it to the Upstate and really you would only use one driver day.”

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