How CSX uses block-swapping to replace Ohio sorting terminal

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — CSX Transportation is increasingly relying on block-swapping intermodal traffic as it prepares to shut down its massive container-sorting hub in North Baltimore, Ohio, which last year handled more than a quarter of the railroad’s intermodal loads.

The Northwest Ohio Intermodal Terminal was designed to support CSX’s hub-and-spoke approach to serving smaller intermodal markets, as well as to sort westbound loads for interchange in Chicago. By sorting container shipments at North Baltimore, CSX could build the density required to provide new or more frequent service to places such as Louisville, Ky.

CSX has pruned scores of low-volume origin-destination pairs as part of its effort to divert traffic from North Baltimore, which lifted more than 809,000 containers last year. No terminal closures have been announced, and some of the traffic is being blended into the merchandise network.

Block-swapping of intermodal loads en route — sometimes involving merchandise trains — will enable CSX to retain and more efficiently handle traffic in the absence of North Baltimore, according to a review of recent train plan modifications.

An example of the service changes involves trains Q135 and Q136, which hauled containers and auto racks between Portsmouth, Va., and North Baltimore. The pair was replaced last week by Q354 and Q355, which run between Portsmouth and Ashtabula, Ohio. (They use the Norfolk Southern Youngstown Line between New Castle, Pa., and Ashtabula.)

The westbound Q355 sets off its Louisville and Chicago traffic at Connellsville, Pa., to be picked up by another intermodal train. It also makes a setout at the new Pittsburgh intermodal terminal.

Everything else — container blocks for Cleveland, Columbus, and Detroit — goes to Ashtabula, where it is picked up by Q391, a Buffalo, N.Y., to Columbus, Ohio, merchandise train. At Cleveland, the Q391 drops Cleveland and Detroit blocks. At Willard, Ohio, it picks up Columbus containers left by other trains and sets out everything not destined for the Columbus intermodal ramp. It then heads for Columbus.

Although the containers lay over in Ashtabula for up to 20 hours, overall transit time remains the same as the old schedule via North Baltimore. Cutoff in Portsmouth is 5 p.m. on Monday, for example, with availability in Columbus at 7 a.m. on Friday.

CSX is making similar changes involving other traffic currently sorted at North Baltimore.

North Baltimore is scheduled to lift its last container on Nov. 11, sources tell Trains News Wire. After then, it continues to serve as a block-swapping yard for traffic bound for Chicago and connections with BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific, and Union Pacific.
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