On Topic: The Rail Business is Boring

J.B. Hunt and BNSF Railway Company are launching a joint effort to substantially improve capacity in the intermodal marketplace while also meeting the expanding needs of current customers.

March 16, 2022

Demand for intermodal services has grown significantly in recent years as companies look to secure capacity, while reducing costs and their carbon footprint. Based on current and projected trends, J.B. Hunt plans to grow its intermodal fleet to as many as 150,000 containers in the next three to five years, a 40+% increase from its count at the end of 2021. The company has completed more than four million intermodal loads since 2020.

“Over the past few years, intermodal has been disrupted by increased demand and tight capacity, resulting in poor container velocity and long dwell times,” said John Roberts, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt. “Together, J.B. Hunt and BNSF will enhance their work to bring back the consistency and reliability customers expect with intermodal services and further embrace intermodal conversion and transloading services. This priority falls directly in line with J.B. Hunt’s mission statement to create the most efficient transportation network in North America.”

Looking forward and as part of the initiative, BNSF will increase capability at multiple intermodal facilities. To further integrate its joint service product with J.B. Hunt, BNSF is providing several property locations around key intermodal hubs in Southern California, Chicago, and other key markets to increase efficiency at terminals. Additionally, BNSF will bolster its railcar equipment to accommodate the anticipated increase in container capacity, which will support efficient throughput and strong service performance.

In addition to growing its container count, J.B. Hunt will add supporting chassis based on market need. Over the years, both companies have invested billions of dollars to ensure intermodal’s ability to grow with customers and meet the increasing demand for intermodal services.

“More than 30 years ago, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and BNSF predecessor The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company loaded a Hunt trailer onto a railcar to help usher in the modern age of intermodal freight transport,” said Katie Farmer, BNSF president and CEO.

“BNSF’s industry-leading service combined with J.B. Hunt’s unparalleled intermodal product has set the standard for seamless door-to-door service. We will raise the bar on service to the next level through technology and innovation as we further integrate our platforms with real-time data exchanges. We want our customers to enjoy the best of both worlds: economical and environmentally friendly service delivered by transportation’s premium providers.”

The companies will leverage technology, including the industry leading J.B. Hunt 360°®, to improve efficiencies in rail transport. J.B. Hunt 360’s digital freight matching platform is one of the few in the industry to support intermodal services. Based on analysis of J.B. Hunt 360 transactions and annual bid activity, the company estimates that an additional 7 to 11 million shipments could be converted to intermodal, supporting long-term growth opportunities while avoiding carbon emissions.

J.B. Hunt and BNSF disrupted the transportation industry in 1989 by developing a double-stack shipping solution that would complement both rail and trucking services, a first for modern transportation. Today, J.B. Hunt operates the largest company-owned intermodal fleet in North America with more than 109,000 53’ containers supported by company-owned chassis and tractors. BNSF operates the largest intermodal rail network handling roughly 1 million more intermodal units each year than any other railroad and through their investments offer the fastest intermodal route between Southern California and the Midwest.



Rail may be boring, but it is still the most economical way to ship freight across the country where water routes are not available.

People dream of alternatives but so far none has proved successful. Still improvements in rail technology are constantly under development. Electric or hydrogen powered locomotives. LNG fuel.

Stay tuned. Shipping tends to track the economy. Yes, boring, but reliable.

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The obvious threat is electric trucks, but then again, as battery technology makes electric trucking possible, it will also make electric training possible, so some of the cost advantage will be preserved. Also, a big part of gasoline/diesel costs is the part that pays for the road infrastructure. Once many or most road vehicles are electric, cars and trucks will probably be taxed based on their use of the infrastructure, so some of the economies associated with electrification will disappear.

If anyone knows of an analysis of this train/truck comparison, as they go electric, it would be interesting for Berkshire owners to know how this major pillar of Berkshire’s business might be affected.

Regards, DTB


Great story.

A good question from the above report to ask at the annual meeting: The “fastest” intermodal route between Southern CA and Chicago: Can the current capability be quantified in unit cost ($/Ton-Mile) and Speed (Hrs/ton-mile or similar). Given that, what would be the speed-cost threshold to overcome for traditional trucks and even emerging tech like H2 or Electric trucks? Or that driverless truck? Quantifying the hype, if you will.

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As rail modernizes or changes to something else, the value of the rights of way is immeasurable.


“As rail modernizes or changes to something else, the value of the rights of way is immeasurable.”

Who knows, some day someone might want to build a long distance tunnel across the country.

Speaking of boring:



Who knows, some day someone might want to build a long distance tunnel across the country.

That’s nothin. Think big.



Who knows, some day someone might want to build a long distance tunnel across the country.

That’s nothin. Think big.

Or think small - burrito-sized:


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That’s nothin. Think big.


That’s a weirdly good book, still remember it fondly.