BNSF’s ‘uplifting’ technology keeps intermodal containers moving safely and efficiently

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Jul 15, 2020

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2 min.

BNSF’s ‘uplifting’ technology keeps intermodal containers moving safely and efficiently

At BNSF’s hubs and logistics parks, where trucks and trains interface for our intermodal operations, we are piloting automation to improve safety, enhance capabilities and increase efficiency. One of the technologies we’re testing is automated straddle carriers – or autostrads.

Two autostrads are now being used at our Logistics Park Kansas City (LPKC) Intermodal Facility. When a truck driver arrives at LPKC, he or she is directed to fenced truck portals that are adjacent to the hub’s production area, where the containers are loaded and unloaded onto trains.

After backing into one of the portals, the truck driver exits the cab, then moves safely behind the fence, where there is a kiosk for entering container data.

Once information has been input, the fully automated driverless autostrad, using navigation and positioning technology, then “drives” to the portal and picks up the container. The container information tells the autostrad where to take it for loading onto a train with an overhead crane.

The reverse happens when a driver is picking up a container; the autostrad takes the container from the stacks in the production area to the truck and then loads the container onto the truck chassis – all safely and in a matter of minutes.

To understand the full benefits of autostrads you have to understand how a traditional hub operates. In most intermodal hubs, a truck driver enters the facility and drives to an assigned parking spot. The truck driver unhooks and leaves the container. Then hostler trucks take the container from the parking spot to the production area, where overhead cranes vertically lift the container onto a train. The process is reversed for containers coming in for pickup by a truck driver.

“The beauty of the autostrads is that we ‘touch’ a container just one time, for either inbound or outbound operations,” said Michael Kutscher, terminal manager, LPKC. The autostrads are also used during off-peak times to “groom” the stacks of containers so they are in the right place for loading onto trains.

LPKC is one of 25 hubs and logistics parks on BNSF and No. 6 in terms of volumes. The layout of the facility made it a good location to test the autostrads, according to Matt Talley, terminal manager, noting testing began in February. “Since our ‘go live’ in mid-February, we’ve completed about 8,000 moves with the new autostrads,” he noted.

We’re the first railroad in the world to use autostrads that carry containers larger than 40 feet and the first U.S. rail carrier to implement this technology at an inland intermodal facility.

“We’re incredibly excited about our automation efforts and believe it is certainly the future of intermodal hub operations,” said Bob McConaughey, assistant vice president, Hub & Terminal Operations. “As such, we look to lead this effort.”

To learn more, watch this animation on how autostrads work.

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