The General Accounting Office (GAO) examined the status and potential benefits of intermodal rail transportation, in which loaded containers or trailers are transferred intact from truck to rail and back to truck. Specifically, GAO (1) examined recent trends in intermodal rail transportation, (2) assessed the prospects for more intermodal cooperation between the rail and trucking industries, (3) identified problems that limit the effectiveness and benefits of intermodal transportation, and (4) considered whether any federal initiatives might be helpful in encouraging intermodal cooperation. Briefly, GAO found the following: The shipment of highway trailers on rail flatcars grew slowly in the 1970s, and many railroads questioned its profitability. Intermodal rail operations expanded in the 1980s, stimulated by the deregulation of railroad freight rates and marketing practices under the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. Also, in 1984 containers from ocean carriers began moving inland from West Coast ports on double-stack railcars. With improved service and equipment, intermodal shipments grew from 3 million trailers and containers in 1980 to 6.2 million in 1991, and have grown at an 8% rate in 1992. The 1990s have seen increased rail and trucking company cooperation. Intermodal rail service has had difficulty in the more fragmented, shorter-haul markets of the eastern U.S. and has thus provided only limited relief to the eastern highway network. Moreover, the success of intermodal trains between Chicago and the West Coast has presented a challenge in that it has increased truck traffic on the highways leading to and from Chicago's intermodal terminals, adding to that city's congestion and pollution. Intermodal traffic is also aggravating congestion problems in Los Angeles, New York, and, to a lesser degree, other port cities. Officials of rail, trucking, and ocean carriers generally favor allowing market forces, rather than government incentives or regulations, to determine the development of intermodal transportation. However, many believe that DOT's new Office of Intermodalism could play a useful role in helping the industry solve specific intermodal transportation problems in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) gave the Office the general mission of promoting efficient intermodal transportation. GAO believes that, with adequate resources, the Office could help industry and local government officials agree on plans and funding for intermodal projects. A combination of private and public funding may be needed for such projects, but ISTEA did not expressly authorize the use of highway trust funds for intermodal rail freight projects.

  • Supplemental Notes:
    • Report to the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, House of Representatives.
  • Corporate Authors:

    U.S. General Accounting Office

    441 G Street, NW
    Washington, DC  United States  20548
  • Publication Date: 1992-12


  • English

Media Info

  • Features: Appendices; Figures;
  • Pagination: 59 p.

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 00625649
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Report/Paper Numbers: GAO/RCED-93-16
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: Dec 31 1993 12:00AM