UP opens Donner Route for double-stacking | nnbw.com

UP opens Donner Route for double-stacking

John Seelmeyer

Notches cut into rail tunnels over Donner Summit might strengthen the position of northern Nevada as a major distribution hub for the West Coast.

Some logistics executives are working quietly to open the door for intermodal shipments containers that move from trucks to trains and back to trucks to be loaded in Union Pacific yards in the Reno-Sparks area.

Currently, intermodal loads are trucked between Reno and a facility near Stockton, Calif., a step that adds to shippers’ costs. (Even container loads that are headed east from Reno begin their journey with the trip west to Stockton.)

Russ Romine, president of Griffin Transport Services Inc. in Reno and 2010 chairman of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, said improvement of rail service “is a big question in this market.”

An EDAWN task force has followed the Union Pacific’s plans closely and supports the improvements over Donner Summit.

The railroad cut more than 18,000 linear feet of notches to improve clearance through 15 tunnels a step that allows container traffic to be double-stacked as it moves from California to Reno and points east.

Previously, containers could be only single-stacked on trains moving over the summit.

Double-stacked intermodal traffic previously was required to take Union Pacific’s Feather River route through northern California. That route, which rejoins the Union Pacific’s main line at Winnemucca, adds 75 miles and about three hours to the trip.

Steve Reid, president of Bender Group, a logistics company in Reno, doubts that the double-stacking of intermodal trains into Reno will have much effect.

Most shipments from northern Nevada to California, he says, are fairly small less than a truckload and time-sensitive. Those don’t lend themselves to westbound intermodal shipment.

While shipments from the Port of Oakland to Reno distribution centers are often high-volume, Reid says they, too, are time-sensitive. And relatively little freight moves east from Reno.

“It wouldn’t make sense for the UP to double-stack a flat car destined for Reno, only to have them run empty as they proceed east,” he says.

Even without direct intermodal shipments to and from the rail yards at Sparks, the improvements could improve cost effectiveness of the region’s rail transport in two ways, said Dan Oster, a leader of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals in Reno and a commercial real estate broker with NAI Alliance.

First, a train that is double-stacked obviously carries far more freight than a train that’s single-stacked.

In addition, Oster noted the Union Pacific’s Feather River route is so filled with curves that trains are limited to 5,700 feet in length. The Donner Pass Route, however, can handle trains that are 9,000 feet long a 58 percent increase.

Longer trains are more cost efficient. The railroad has said that a single intermodal train handles as much freight as 300 trucks, and trains are three to four times more fuel-efficient.

John Kaiser, a Union Pacific vice president and general manager of its intermodal operations, said the improvements on the Donner Pass route also give the railroad greater flexibility in its operations.

The construction project between Truckee and Rocklin took a year. Along with the notches in the roofs of 15 tunnels, the work included:

* Removing track, lowering the floor and reinstalling the track in two tunnels.

* Installing rock bolts to improve the stability of five tunnels.

* Upgrading signals along 30 miles of the Donner Summit route. The new systems allow train movements to be controlled by signal technology rather than radio communications between dispatchers and locomotive engineers.

The Union Pacific’s willingness to invest heavily in the Donner Pass route on its own without government assistance makes a strong statement about its commitment to the region, Oster said.

“Rail is an important element in the health of the logistics industry in northern Nevada,” he said.

The shifting of intermodal traffic from the Feather River route will mean that some Union Pacific workers will report for work in Sparks rather than Portola, said Tom Lange, a spokesman for the railroad.

But Union Pacific support functions such as engineering and signaling will remain in Portola.