LOS ANGELES - A new triple-decker railroad car will help deliver vehicles from the factory to dealers faster, cheaper and in better condition.
Designed with help from American Honda Motor Co. Inc., the new Auto-Max rail car is built by Greenbrier Cos. Previously, trains could only haul light trucks on double-deck rail cars, while triple-deckers were the domain of passenger cars. But Auto-Max can handle passenger cars and light trucks in a triple-deck configuration. In fact, all but the largest full-sized trucks and sport-utilities can be stacked three tall in the Auto-Max.
Until now, rail cars have been limited by short ceilings. Autos typically ride on ordinary rail cars that have been converted to handle cars and trucks.
The Greenbrier design was tailored for motor vehicles. It has a sunken floor between the axles, giving the car just one foot of ground clearance compared to 21/2 feet for standard rail cars. The roofline is a foot higher than most rail cars.
The Auto-Max also is much longer than a traditional rail car, but has a joint at its midpoint to make for easier cornering and better ride quality. It also is wider inside, reducing the chance of door dings and body panel scrapes during loading and unloading,
The bottom line: Auto-Max can haul up to 26 vehicles per rail car, compared with a maximum of 10 trucks or 15 cars on traditional rail cars, said Bob Yates, vice president of Greenbrier Intermodal Auto-Max in Walnut Creek, Calif. As a result, 35 Auto-Max cars can do the hauling of 70 to 72 standard rail cars. And because automakers are charged by the rail car - not by the vehicle- the design should mean substantial transportation savings.
The Auto-Max also has been designed with special electronic brakes, meaning it can stop 40 percent faster than rail cars with air brakes. That lets the train travel at higher speeds - up to 70 mph, compared to a maximum of 55 mph for traditional car carriers, Yates said.
As for security, the Auto-Max has lockable rear doors similar to those found on shipping containers. The sides of the car are made of 11-gauge sheet steel. Access to the roof - a common entry point for thieves and vandals - is discouraged because the ladder is placed on the inside of the door.
'One railroad company in Mexico told us they were losing 5,000 radios a year to thieves. The authorities didn't even consider it a crime since the car wasn't designed to keep you out. With Auto-Max, thieves don't have a way to get in,' Yates said.
That Auto-Max can handle different kinds of loads makes for easier logistics for the railways as well, said Kathleen Regan, vice president of automotive marketing for BNSF Railway.
Because the old-style rail cars can't handle all kinds of vehicles, the railroad had to make sure that its double-deck rail cars were sent to light-truck factories, while triple-deckers went to passenger car plants. There is no such confusion with the Auto-Max, Regan said.
The flexibility of the Auto-Max design also will protect railroads against future swings in the automobile market.
'The railroads didn't believe the growth potential of the truck, van and SUV markets. We didn't have enough bilevel rail cars to support that explosion. But Auto-Max will be able to support those changes,' Regan said.
To be sure, Auto-Max has some tradeoffs. The larger rail car cannot go everywhere, because some tunnels can't handle its size. Smaller railheads can't handle all the cargo that an Auto-Max train would unload. Auto-Max cars also are expensive, about $200,000 compared to $120,000 for standard rail cars. That means that Auto-Max is hardly going to make the old-style rail cars obsolete. After all, automakers still need to get cars to Dilworth, Minn., as well as Los Angeles.
A STRAIGHT SHOT
At the moment, Auto-Max is still so new that only Honda and BNSF use it. But other railroads and automakers are expected to join in once Greenbrier gets its production line cranked up.
And because of Auto-Max's limitations, it is only being used on runs that have routes and railheads that can handle the larger, faster trains, said Dick Frick, American Honda manager of automobile logistics.
Honda uses Auto-Max for nonstop runs from the Marysville, Ohio, and Alliston, Ontario, factories to Los Angeles, and a return trip with imported cars from the Port of San Diego to Toledo, Ohio. Because all the vehicles are destined for the same hungry metro market, the train doesn't have to stop to disconnect rail cars along the way. It's a straight shot, stopping only for crew changes.
That means a train that used to take eight days to travel from Marysville to Los Angeles now takes less than four days. In the distribution business, time is money. Shaving four days off the delivery cycle means major cost savings, though Frick declined to give a dollar figure. He said using Auto-Max lets Honda have five runs with loaded rail cars per month, compared to the industry average of 1.8 a month.
The first 35-car set of Auto-Max rail cars went into service in late September, the second in October. Honda was so confident in the speed, security and improved ride quality of the Auto-Max that it was used for the initial delivery of Honda's S2000 roadsters to the Midwest. No damage was reported to any cars, Frick said.
'What's amazing is that there's almost no side-to-side or front-to-back vibrations from a car that's 20 feet in the air,' Frick said.