Takeaways From The 2020 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting

This article has been reprinted from the Jan. 23 USDA Grain Transportation Report.

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) held its 99th annual meeting in Washington, DC, on January 12-16, 2020.

The conference was attended by a record-setting 13,900+ policymakers, administrators, researchers, and representatives from government, industry, and academia.

With the theme “A Century of Progress: Foundation for the Future,” the event featured over 5,000 presentations in nearly 800 sessions.

Here, we describe some of the key points from presentations and panel discussions relevant to agricultural transportation.

Agriculture and Food Transportation Committee Meeting

The committee discussed the need for research in several areas, such as export competitiveness, truck size and weight, autonomous vehicles, equipment availability, food deserts and local food availability, blockchain, and the effect of precision scheduled railroading on agriculture supply chains.

The committee also expressed a need for agricultural research that dovetailed with areas funded by States’ Departments of Transportation to align with their mission.

Other issues of concern to shippers included demurrage and detention fees, port congestion, chassis availability, and the low-sulfur fuel mandate.

Two ongoing projects were presented by representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

USDA presented the recently inaugurated Open Data Platform, which makes agricultural transportation data more usable, sharable, discoverable and accessible to the public.

DOT updated the Committee on its ongoing “Agricultural Highway Freight Infrastructure Strategic Plan” project, which is due to be completed in the fall of 2020.

This partnership project—among DOT, the U.S. DOT Volpe Center, USDA, and interested stakeholders—aims to analyze highway infrastructure performance, particularly with respect to transporting agricultural goods.

Inland Waterways Committee Meeting and Lectern Session

The committee discussed a proposal to create federally recognized port districts in the Midwest to coordinate management of terminals on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers under three new port authorities.

Another presentation focused on development of container-on-barge operations between the Port of Virginia and Richmond, including a recent equipment upgrade that allows for refrigerated containers to move on the James River.

A U.S. DOT representative discussed the agency’s National Freight Strategic Plan, which includes reforming the funding strategy for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ waterways projects.

A lectern session featured two presentations that highlighted performance and resiliency measures of the inland waterway system.

The first discussed a survey of how State DOTs recorded performance of their inland waterways.

The researchers found that a State’s volume of waterborne freight traffic did not correlate with the number of measures recorded.

Of the five States with the highest tonnages, only Kentucky used more than one measurement, and none issued performance report cards on these metrics.

On the other hand, several States with tonnages below the five highest ones used multiple metrics in addition to performance report cards.

The second presentation summarized a study that simulated traffic flows in the presence or absence of a river-closing incident.

In hypothetical scenarios where tow-size or daylight-only traffic restrictions were enforced, freight traffic was reduced relative to incident-free scenarios where such restrictions did not exist.

However, the researchers speculated that, in the long term, overall, if these policies helped to avoid incidents, they would result in higher volumes of freight traffic.

Current Research in Agriculture and Food Transportation

Among other topics, this session examined the growth in ethanol production in the United States, its effect on transportation demand, and the resulting rail-truck competition.

The key finding was the dominant role of trucks for shorter distances and lesser tonnage. As tonnage increases, trucks are less able to compete, while rail becomes more competitive.

In addition, short line rail expansion increases the ability of rail to compete with trucks locally, while larger truck sizes enhance trucks’ ability to compete with rail.

The Future of North American Freight Rail Transportation

This session focused on the role of technology in the future of U.S. railroads.

The panel discussed the role new technologies will have in improving safety and optimizing operations, as well as challenges the industry may face in coming years.

One speaker described shippers’ desire for real-time data to track their shipments’ progress as the “Amazon effect.”

The panel considered the ability of technology to address challenges such as car supply, competitive pricing, capital investment in marginal assets, and the influence of autonomous trucks and truck weights on the competitive landscape for railways.

In the face of increased truck competition, railroads will have to improve their service and reliability in order to increase their volumes and market share.

Finally, panel members noted the growing concern advanced technology would displace labor and the need to address the issue.

Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR)

In this session a panel of academic and industry experts examined PSR and discussed what it is, as well as its opportunities and challenges to different stakeholders.

Although there is no single definition and each railroad implements PSR differently, one panelist outlined five fundamental principles behind implementing PSR: precision service, cost control, (efficient) asset utilization, safety, and “people” (i.e., railroad employees).

Even as PSR has increased railroad returns, lowered costs, and improved asset utilization, challenges remain in implementation.

These include a continued loss of carload traffic, tensions over railroads’ common carrier obligation, and the need to more fairly transfer some the cost savings to shippers.

The panel acknowledged inefficiencies and service failures at yards and terminals, creating a need for better real-time data sharing and planning tools.

The panel also discussed the challenge of balancing PSR’s rigid operating principles with shippers’ continually fluctuating demand for rail transportation.

Concerns were also raised over how well railroads will be able to handle unexpected surges in demand without having excess assets.

The next Transportation Research Board meeting will take place in Washington, DC on January 24-28, 2021.