Transportation After The Pandemic: The Resilient Supply Chain

As consumers headed to stores in late March only to be greeted by empty shelves and a backlog of inventory resupplies for medical personnel, much of the nation began to feel like New York City after Sandy, or the Gulf after Florence: shortages on staples and emergency resources alike.  Existing freight lines were not tooled for different load types, destinations, and one-way hauls. But the transportation industry adapted remarkably quick to meet the challenges facing communities across the nation, with most communities experiencing resupply of staple goods within days to up to 2 weeks.

Adapting to Supply Chain Disruptions

Disruptions in the past several decades have often been the result of natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, resulting in adjusting transportation modes in and out of affected areas, and constrained raw and finished goods produced within the vicinity of the disaster.  Take Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in 2011, paralyzing the local economy, with ripple effects felt in the US as Toyota, G.M., and Nissan were forced to shut down facilities in multiple countries as automotive parts supplier manufacturing within the Tōhoku area grinded to a halt.  With a singular “ground zero”, domestic and international aid workers were able to reroute supplies, reconstruction, and emergency workers and accelerate a recovery effort with minimal global impact.

New Opportunities Within Intermodal Freight

For years there has been a dance between OTR freight and rail freight companies, as containers offer rail companies the ability to double-stack and carry more freight per train than trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC), yet for the truckers, the difference in cargo methods means roughly 6000+ pounds of additional weight between reinforced cargo container and chassis, eating into the 80,000 pound federal limit on US highways.

New equipment may provide the solution for both rail and roadway haulers, as innovative new approaches to design—even integrated reefer units—are reducing per-unit weight and enabling rail carriers to double-stack.  This increases the capacity of the rail systems while minimizing the weight penalty for trucking companies.  As new container technologies emerge, rail companies are incentivizing adoption by logistics companies by increasing the TOFC load fees.

Reshaping Logistics For Greater Flexibility

The recent hitch in supply of goods prompts the industry to continue to innovate intermodal freight, developing redundancies and surge capacities to meet regional and widespread needs in rapid response.  Just as U.S. ports have post-incident plans to manage shortfall and surplus of cargo after a supply delay, shoring up incident and business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) on the macro scale for land-based transportation through increased capacity with intermodal freight may be the new way forward for domestic transportation.