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Intermodal Remains Integral at J.B. Hunt

3 min read

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell announced a new intermodal partnership with BNSF Railways on Nov. 7. The new service is called Quantum after the two companies’ first intermodal partnership way back in 1989. That pairing proved fruitful as J.B. Hunt became one of the largest transportation companies in the world thanks to its intermodal division.

J.B. Hunt is hoping to catch lightning again in the segment. The intermodal industry has struggled recently because of congestion at ports and a slowdown in freight shipments.

“When you think about the impact, we believe our intermodal industry has lost share to the highway over the last few years for a variety of reasons,” said Spencer Frazier, executive vice president of sales and marketing at J.B. Hunt. “We believe our core intermodal product, the work we have been doing over the last year, has been earning that trust back and earning the opportunity to win back that share that we lost. That’s something we are going to continue to do as fast as we can.”

Quantum will be based in Fort Worth,  where BNSF is headquartered, and will operate through employees of both companies. The new project sprang from a meeting more than a year ago during which BNSF CEO Katie Farmer asked executives of both companies what customers wanted from the industry that wasn’t available.

Darren Field, president of J.B. Hunt’s intermodal division, said that challenge led to Quantum. Quantum was officially announced Nov. 7 but has been operating quietly with a select number of customers since July.

“As the years have gone by, as we’ve talked with our customers, there has always been a significant amount of business that [felt] the cost of failure may be deemed too risky for shippers to utilize intermodal for a host of reasons,” Field said. “We see an enormous amount of volume — somewhere between 7 and 10 million loads a year — that intermodal can and should be the answer for with the correct level of service, consistency, speed, reliability and even agility.”

Field said early results were better than expected, surpassing the goal of 95% on-time delivery of loads.

Frazier said the system brings personalized logistics to intermodal shipping. Each company the Quantum teams work with will have a customized shipping design, with alternatives at the ready for contigencies that happen in the transportation world.

Frazier said the old model of intermodal was based on the transit schedule and a shipper’s containers had to fit into that schedule. Quantum promises to add scheduling flexibility. “This is something the industry has never seen before,” Frazier said.

J.B. Hunt is obviously still a big believer in its specialty despite the challenges faced by the intermodal segment this year. For the first three quarters of fiscal 2023, J.B. Hunt reported intermodal revenue of $4.6 billion, down from $5.5 billion in the same three quarters of 2022.

Quantum is another example of the company doubling down on intermodal. J.B. Hunt had announced in recent years its goal to add as many as 150,000 shipping containers to its intermodal fleet by 2027.

Part of the reason is financial: Intermodal is a cost-efficient, profitable way to ship goods. J.B. Hunt said another reason to promote and expand intermodal is environmental.

In its sustainability report released in August, the company said it wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by 2034. Chief Sustainability Officer Craig Harper said the easiest way to do that is by switching truckload cargo to intermodal.

It has eliminated more than 3.6 million metric tons of carbon emissions by transporting loads through intermodal rather than on highway trucks, the company said.

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