SAN DIEGO. The intermodal divisions of several railroads – Norfolk Southern, CSX Intermodal, and BNSF Railway – were out in force hunting for potential trucking partners here at the 2011 Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA) Annual Convention.

Tom Selbitschka, BNSF’s director of sales for LTL marketing and expedited services, told Fleet Owner now is “a good time” for railroads and trucking companies to forge freight intermodal partnerships as a lack of capacity and rising fuel prices is putting pressure on all modes of transportation.

“The trucking industry in particular is dealing with an enormous number of challenges simultaneously,” Selbitschka said. “You’ve got high diesel fuel prices, the new CSA [Compliance, Safety, Accountability] safety program, new hours-of-service regulations, more highway congestion, and a growing lack of drivers. These issues are not going away.”

In particular, he said that combination rail-truck freight moves work best when shipment length of haul is above 400 to 500 mi. For trucking companies, it creates shorter lengths of haul that burn less fuel and get drivers home far more frequently, he noted.

Selbitschka stressed that he uses the word “partnership” deliberately to identify the kind of “win-win” relationship railroads like BNSF are trying to forge with truckers.

“We can do an awful lot more in a partnership versus transaction business,” he explained. “We can plan freight volumes better, create better lanes, and manage costs better for both. It’s a two-way street as well; both sides need to benefit.”

The beefed up search for intermodal partnerships is also occurring at a time when freight transportation capacity as a whole remains extremely tight, making it more difficult for shippers to move their goods.

According to research firm FTR Associates, its Shippers Condition Index (SCI) remained in low territory in February with a value of negative 5.2, with expectations of a continued drop as the outlook for capacity shortages worsen in the seasonally strong spring months. As a result, total shipping costs will accelerate rapidly driven by growth in transport costs, said Noel Perry, senior consultant with FTR.

“The March number will drop sharply as the spring surge in freight arrives,” he said.