Rail wheels for highway trailers are hauling the freight
Lots of things have changed in more than 150 years of US railroading, but until now one rule has never varied: You couldn't run a railroad without railroad cars.Skip to next paragraph
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Today you can, say Connecticut-based promotor Robert Reebie and his backers at the giant Chicago-based North American Car Corporation.
Mr. Reebie and a growing number of fans in the railroad industry insist the American railroads now can haul high-revenue merchandise shipments in highway semi-trailers fitted with a special set of retractable steel wheels that allow the trailer to be run on rails behind a locomotive.
The RoadRailer, as Reebie calls his trainlike truck, has already been tested in revenue service on five US railroads. Despite some initial skepticism from traditional railroad operating officials, it seems to be winning more than grudging approval, particularly from railroad marketing executives who are eager to lure lucrative merchandise traffic off the highway and back to the newly deregulated rails.
One of those executives is Peter Novas, vice-president for intermodal (piggyback and container) traffic at the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad (ICG), the first carrier to lease a set of RoadRailers and place them in nightly scheduled service.
A maverick marketing specialist and engineer, Mr. Novas agreed to test a special train of 50 RoadRailer trailers last spring between Memphis and Louisville because the new technology promised to solve a pesky operational problem that has kept the ICG from developing the route's potential as a ''corridor.''
''We identified a lot of overnight truck traffic between those two points that should have been on a piggyback train,'' Novas said.
''But our track between Memphis and Louisville has so many curves and hills, especially on the east end between Louisville and Paducah, that there's no way a conventional train can make the same schedule as a truck on the Interstate.
''Regular piggyback flatcars are 89 feet long, so you can't go around tight curves very fast with them,'' Novas explained, ''and the weight of the cars means it takes a long time to get up to speed when you reach a straight stretch and a long time to slow down when you come to a curve.''
The RoadRailer solves that problem by dispensing with the flatcars entirely, using the trailers alone as a train.
Since each 45-foot trailer is half the length of a piggyback car, it does a better job of tracking through curves. And because RoadRailers alone weigh 178 per cent less than a piggyback train of the same capacity, fewer locomotives are needed, trains accelerate to top speed sooner, and only half the usual distance is needed to make a complete stop.
Result: ICG's experimental RoadRailer train made the tough Louisville-Memphis run four times on a truck-competitive schedule of about 16 hours, resulting in ICG's decision to lease a fleet of trailers and begin service Sept. 28. Planned track and handling improvements could slice another two or three hours off the train's time.
''We are meeting the test of the marketplace with flying colors,'' Mr.Novas said.