Two hard economic factors of recent years - more expensive fuel and high interest rates - have opened the door to expanded ''piggybacking,'' the use of trains to speed truck deliveries.
Piggybacking is not a new idea. Transportation of truck trailers on railroad flatcars has been going on for more than 30 years, but the trailers usually have traveled only about 400 miles or less.
What is new is the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) approach to piggybacking. The railroad's intermodal system revolves around a number of newly established hubs, points where truck trailers are delivered to BN during daytime business hours. They are then placed on flatcars, and moved out as trailer trains at the same hour each night to cross-country destinations, from which they are quickly trucked to local customers, such as warehouses and retail stores.
Not too long ago, BN began running the longest freight run in North America, now interchanged with another railroad, 2,974 miles from Portland to Memphis, Tenn., a run largely made up of piggyback traffic. This run of four days cuts the previous running time almost in half.
Under the new hub system, BN finds savings are twofold: reduced fuel costs for truck operators and speedier merchandise delivery. Also, business firms, getting quicker deliveries, can carry smaller inventories, because they are assured of shipments from suppliers on a reliable schedule. And the carrying costs (interest rates) on smaller inventories are lower, reducing company overhead.
One of the first hubs in operation was in Portland, where operations are under the supervision of Dave Johnson, who had wide previous experience in trucking operations, including stints in Africa and the Middle East.
The BN intermodular train leaves Portland at 7:30 each evening and arrives in Chicago on the third night. Unloading at the Cicero, Ill., hub center outside Chicago takes place next morning.
One of the direct benefits to the railroad of running intermodular trailer trains is lower cost of diesel fuel. On the Portland-Chicago run the saving is $ 6,000, compared with the cost of operating a regular commodity freight train on the same run.
In addition to the centers in Cicero and Portland, there also are hubs in Seattle and Minneapolis. Memphis and Spokane, Wash., will have hubs in operation late this year. In all, 34 centers are to be in operation by 1988. As an indication of the probable final cost of the centers, BN has spent more than $4 million to open Cicero, Memphis, and Portland facilities.
William E. Greenwood, BN senior assistant vice-president for intermodal marketing, says the market for such trailer movement ''is virtually untapped; the future looks very promising for all of us in intermodal transportation.''
The key to success in this market, he adds, ''is to be cost-effective and service-effective as a carrier.'' To reach those goals BN is working closely with carriers, suppliers, shipping agents, shipping associations, and freight forwarders.