Is TMS Ready for the Impending Flight to Rail & Multimodal?

Rail and multi-modal transportation for food shippers and other cold-chain users is fast becoming an inescapable reality.  Why is this happening and is your TMS solution up to the challenge of moving beyond a truck-centric posture?

In recent posts, the Collaborator blog has covered a number of trends affecting the transportation industry including the recently tightened hours of service rules and the FMCSA’s electronic monitoring device mandate.  Both developments have had the same negative consequences, particularly, forcing more of the smaller operators that make up more than 90% of all trucking carriers in the US out of business.  Other factors contributing to tightening capacity include an ongoing driver shortage, high fuel costs and a brutal winter.  Taken altogether, the trends point toward increased interest in alternative modes of shipping as trucking capacity will be diminished for the foreseeable future.

Our friend and noted transportation industry expert, Joe Lombardo was recently interviewed in an article at Food Logistics magazine entitled, “Rail Makes its Move into Cold Chain”.  In it, Joe explains how the above-mentioned capacity trends and improvements in rail carriers’ ability to address food shippers’ needs have dovetailed making rail and multimodal a much more attractive option than ever before.  Joe further explains that traditional biases against rail/intermodal – shorter lead times, opaque track and trace capabilities, higher incidences of damage in transit – are no longer accurate as rail carriers and IMCs have worked to take advantage of the current environment favoring their use.

With this unmistakable trend looming, how well-prepared are TMS solutions to accommodate increased usage of rail and multimodal?  Ultra’s Chris Noble says, “I cannot speak for other providers, but UltraShipTMS has been anticipating this trend and has put a lot of thought into how to improve its capabilities in this area.”  Functionality for mode selection including automated routing guides and rate selection has been honed to include rail and multimodal options.   In addition, recent advances in optimization involving accurate appointment windows are being synched with published rail schedules.  These two advances have helped mitigate concerns about shortened lead times, eliminating that reservation about rail/multimodal. 

Contemporary TMS solutions vary in their ability to provide better visibility for track and trace freight shipped via rail.  The best-in-class TMS has “ears open” to support data and communications transmitted via numerous protocols so that freight location and other information can be brought into the TMS and the process can be automated to the same degree OTR freight is managed.  “The key to this,” says Noble, “is having a solution that knows what information is out there (in terms of tracing practices used by the rail carriers), the format by which the information is conveyed (whether that be EDI, email or other), and how to get that information into the TMS.”  Rail carriers will continue to make their offerings more attractive to shippers who traditionally relied on OTR shipping.  TMS providers that can adapt to align with this trend will be the prime beneficiaries of what will likely be a significant increase in the use of rail/multimodal.

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