Last Friday North American rail provider Union Pacific officially unveiled its new convertible, multi-level rail wagon for vehicle transport that, unlike traditional wagons, can be switched between bi-level and tri-levels according to customer demand.
The company will be rolling out 100 of the new 90-foot AutoFlex wagons – referred to as railcars in North America – in 2011 to join its existing fleet of 18,000 vehicle-carrying wagons. For 2012 the company said it expected to produce more than 200 units. The company has previously said that the wagons can be converted between bi- and tri-levels in about 20 man hours.
Union Pacific serves five vehicle assembly plants and connects to West Coast ports and the port of Houston to accommodate both import and export shipments.
Attending the ceremony to mark the unveiling were Union Pacific Railroad’s senior vice president of corporate relations, Bob Turner, and Missouri Governor, Jay Nixon, as well as more than 200 Union Pacific employees and local officials.
"Our nearly 150-year existence is due largely to innovations, like the AutoFlex, that provide value to our customers, keep us competitive, benefit the industry and sustain and grow jobs. Today marks yet another day when Union Pacific employees showed great ingenuity to provide our customers ever-better service. We are very proud of what they achieved," Turner said.
As well as the flexible deck configuration, the company said the AutoFlex wagons promise to increase service quality with an improved durable door edges, a new tie-down chock system and upgraded in-transit damage protection.
The new wagons will help in meeting demand for vehicle shipments in North America that earlier in the year took rail freight providers by surprise. The flexibility of the wagons also means that the railway would be better able to balance demand for shipping vehicles that typically go on bi-levels, such as SUVs and trucks, versus passenger cars that typically move on tri-levels.
Rising fuel prices have prompted increases in the percentage of Americans purchasing smaller passenger cars, however the shift has been volatile and unpredictable, leaving some rail carriers worried that they would be short of one wagon or the other.
The surge in automotive shipments in North America, as carmakers ramp up production to meet demand, also took rail freight providers by surprise earlier this year and resulted in a shortage in wagon availability amongst the region’s leading providers.
The 11.4% surge in demand reported for wagons in the first quarter gave rise to a number of extra measures being taken to meet renewed demand.
According to Union Pacific the US rail industry as a whole has a fleet of about 50,000 multi-level wagons used to ship vehicles while carmakers typically have around 70,000 shippable vehicles per week. That number spiked at the beginning of the year to about 95,000 vehicles.
Union Pacific is one of the largest automotive carriers in North America and operates or accesses 43 distribution centres. Besides transporting finished vehicles, the company handles automotive parts in both boxcars and intermodal containers destined for Mexico, the US and Canada.
In other news, the company is investing $4m for improvements the rail line that runs from Jefferson City to west of Marshall in the state of Missouri. Projects on the 130km stretch of line include removing and installing more than 24,500 ties and replacing more than 400m of rail in various curves. The projects are scheduled to be completed by mid-December.