An inability to move significant volumes across the nation via rail has stunted the Port of Wilmington’s growth potential. But with last month’s launch of the Wilmington Midwest Express, the port aims to beef up its rail activity and perhaps even capture a new service line along the way.
The new rail route offers a direct connection from the Port of Wilmington to Rocky Mount – a 140-mile trip – to CSX’s new 330-acre Carolina Connector Intermodal Rail Terminal. From there, the terminal provides a direct connection to Chicago, St. Louis and northwest Ohio. The strategic positioning is sending goods to and from Wilmington along the East Coast’s I-95 corridor. Previously, the port’s sole rail connection was through the Charlotte Inland Port, an intermodal facility operated by the port system. That tie-in is facilitated by the Queen City Express, a daily service provided by CSX that began in 2017. Growth on this route has tripled since its launch.
Before the Carolina Connector, the port lacked a connection to the East Coast’s main rail network. With the new intermodal facility running, goods can reach the Midwest in about five to six days.
“[It’s] a big step for us, a big opportunity for us, and really will provide alternate solutions for the major carriers that are calling the East Coast,” Doug Vogt, N.C. State Ports Authority’s COO, told the UNCW Research Community in International Trade and Exchange in a Nov. 18 presentation.
Last fiscal year, roughly 3% of the port’s total container volume moved via rail. “We have capacity to do a whole lot more than that,” Vogt told the group.
Nearly 8,000 containers traveled along the port’s Queen City Express last fiscal year, according to Vogt. Roughly 5,000 move through the port (in total, including shipping cargo) each week.
The Carolina Connector is primarily servicing trains from the Port of Wilmington, according to the News & Observer. It’s capable of handling 110,000 containers a year through a mostly automated, no-emissions system, and is CSX’s most technologically advanced intermodal facility to date, company officials have said.
In all, the port handled about 324,000 containers in FY2021, a 2% increase from FY2020, up 40% since FY2017.
Increasing rail-based volume in and out of Wilmington could help ease supply chain strain, considering the nationwide shortage of truck drivers; it could also reduce emissions and improve efficiency, Vogt said.
Roughly 20-30% of volume on incoming ships is destined for the Midwestern cities the port previously had no direct line to, according to Vogt. A streamlined connection to these destinations “is really a requirement,” he said. “That has been the reason we haven’t seen more services come to the Port of Wilmington.”
In 2018, the port authority commissioned an economic impact study, which found the Port of Wilmington contributed $12.9 billion to the state’s economy annually. This contribution is dwarfed by neighboring ports in Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Norfolk, Virginia, which handle significantly more volume.
Compared to other U.S. principal ports, Wilmington’s ranked 37th in imports, 38th in exports and 70th in total tonnage in 2019, according to data reported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In terms of container volume, Wilmington was 22nd in the U.S., according to Logistics Management.
“Inadequate hinterland connectivity is a major factor limiting the geographical area that a port can serve,” the economic impact report concluded. “Given the inland connectivity, it is no surprise that Wilmington and Morehead City have a noticeably smaller economic impact than competing ports that are better supported.”
The report speculated that if the state improved the infrastructure that affects N.C. Ports’ ability to lure in new services, economic returns would cover the investment.
The N.C. Department of Transportation invested $118 million into the privately operated Carolina Connector. CSX pitched in $40 million after the state patched together acreage in Rocky Mount along the rail line.
Plans to create the intermodal network predated supply chain disruptions, but could prove fruitful at a key time. On Nov. 9, President Joe Biden named the facility as one of five inland operations that could alleviate maritime traffic snarls at the Port of Savannah.
Unlike Savannah, Wilmington’s port has seen slightly less traffic as a result of the global logjam.
Blockages at higher-volume ports have fueled an open-for-business mentality in Wilmington, by which port officials hope to capture a service frustrated by inefficiencies elsewhere.
Typically, the port sees one or two vessels a day, according to Vogt, and is equipped to take on roughly one additional ship a day, N.C. Ports director Brian Clark told the Greater Wilmington Business Journal last month.
Lately, the port has seen one ship “just about every day,” Vogt told the researchers. Of the eight lines Wilmington serves, six are operating on schedule; the two trans-Pacific services are experiencing interruptions, according to Clark.
A lack of berth-based traffic helps fuel one of the port’s biggest selling points: its 18-minute single-move turnaround time.
“We really do have to punch above our weight,” Vogt said. “We’re kind of that underdog that wants to make sure we are outperforming our competition.”
The ports authority has leaned into this strength, investing $26 million into improving trucking efficiencies at its southern gate, a project expected to wrap in early December. Work on the gate arose out of its congestion being identified as a key constraint in the Wilmington ports’ strategic master plan in 2016.
It’s all part of an ongoing capital improvement plan, by which $274 million has been invested in port infrastructure since 2016, according to the ports’ latest audit.
In early 2020, the ports paid Duke Energy Progress $11.6 million to raise its power lines 41 feet to a 212- foot clearance height. Months later, in April 2020, it finished up work on the second phase of its $21 million turning basin project to accommodate the largest commercial ships, widening the river from 1,400 feet to 1,524 feet; the first $28 million phase that wrapped in 2016 started with a width of 1,200 feet.
Weeks later, work was complete on a $14 million refrigerated container yard to accommodate pork, one of the state’s strongest export products, and other agricultural goods. A second phase of this project is expected to open by spring 2022.
An $847 million channel deepening project, initiated by the ports, remains in the pre-planning stages.
Just 10% of containers either imported or exported out of North Carolina come through the Port of Wilmington, according to Vogt. “That means 90% are coming through other ports,” he said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for us. We are gaining back some of that market share.”