All Eyes on Illinois Infrastructure

By Laura Temple

quoteSoybeans rely on a complex network of transportation systems to move from Illinois fields to all customers. From rural roads and interstate highways to railways and rivers, each system helps farmers sustainably and competitively move soybeans. Trade, weather and economic challenges underscore the importance of building resiliency into every aspect of the supply chain.

“Historically, these modes of transportation have been viewed as competitors,” says Del Wilkins, president of Illinois Marine Towing, Inc. “But I see barge, rail and truck as complementary. We need the complete network to move goods like soybeans to and from each system. Other global regions don’t have their systems as integrated as we do in the U.S.”

Illinois infrastructure provides soybean farmers several key opportunities to improve resiliency, sustainability and cost efficiency. Check out the latest about this system of systems.

Roads: Potential Seen for Heavy Haul Corridors

Road and highway weight limits can hamper soybean movement. In recent years, the Illinois governor has issued statewide exemptions during harvest that allow 10 percent load weight increases to ease challenges. During the state’s shelter-in-place order, agriculture, as an essential industry, has hauled similar heavier loads to processors and exporters to keep the food supply chain functioning. Heavier loads also reduce total trips, burning less total fuel.

With Heavy Haul Corridors, permitted vehicles could travel at 90,000 pounds or more on designated routes anytime, says Mark Schneidewind, Will County Farm Bureau manager.

“Other states with these corridors describe improved price competitiveness, reduced traffic congestion and better safety because heavy loads travel the same route,” he says. “Other drivers learn to recognize the flashing amber lights that signal heavy loads and can avoid those routes.”

Schneidewind says equipment investments required to prepare trucks for heavier loads and lack of compensation may deter some. But he sees great value for container shipping, which has increased dramatically from the growing intermodal facilities in Joliet and Elwood, Illinois.

“The Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroads have expanded intermodal facilities. More grain terminals are moving into the area to do container business,” he explains. “Soybeans and other agricultural products come from the local area, but also from Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. A Heavy Haul Corridor along I-80 and I-55 in Illinois would help ensure the infrastructure to safely bring heavier loads into these facilities.”

Heavy Haul Corridors would most benefit those near them but improving paths to get soybeans to more markets more competitively can improve basis for the entire state.

Rails: Precision Scheduled Railroading Creates Efficiencies

railAll seven Class I railroads in North America run through Illinois, and six of them have adopted Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a management practice that supports efficiency.

“PSR focuses on keeping rail cars moving with minimal handling,” esays Gary Hunter, CEO of Railroad Industries, Inc. “It maximizes use of assets – cars, engines and tracks – while reducing costs. Shippers need to adjust operations and logistics to fit into the PSR schedule. Shippers that move soybeans in 25, 75 or 100 cars or more, fit into PSR well. But smaller shippers who handle smaller units may face less frequent service and longer transit times to final destinations.”

In addition, 34 local Class III rail lines, or short lines, operate in Illinois on more than 2,190 miles of track. These smaller carriers also adjust to PSR at interchanges with Class I carriers.

During the Class I transition to PSR, short lines sometimes faced reduce volumes and increased costs, says Michael Williams, vice president of corporate communications for Genesee & Wyoming, Inc., a holding company for short lines.

“As Class I railroads achieve their goals of a more fluid network with consistent service, short lines and their customers, like local grain elevators, will benefit,” he says. “Short lines can serve as ‘shock absorbers’ due to their flexibility. When customer production or shipment patterns don’t fit Class I PSR service, short lines can help with storage, flexible shipping and more.”

In Illinois, he says the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railway (TP&W) provides local scheduled service between elevators and processors, with flexibility to meet spot shipment demands.

Williams adds PSR has helped short lines improve customer service, including their ag-focused Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern Railroad (RCPE) in South Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota and Nebraska. The line established scheduled weekly service with potential additional daily runs.

“Each customer knows what days and times they receive service within a 90-minute window,” he says. “That, along with targeted investments to ramp up speed and capacity reduced run times, increased speeds and generated fuel and labor savings.”

Rivers: Addressing Aging Infrastructure Reduces Risks

riverThe inland waterway system efficiently moves large quantities of soybeans. The Illinois River alone moves 40 million tons of goods annually, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). However, aging locks and dams are creating risks.

“Physical infrastructure has a lifespan; it needs maintenance and upkeeping,” says Del Wilkins. “Our locks and dams have outlived their projected lifespans.”

Wilkins thinks the system to fund waterway maintenance works well when executed as intended. The combination of waterway taxes paid by shippers and government funds given to USACE is a sound model. But challenges develop when funds are re-appropriated for other uses.

“Our model can be a win when we work together,” he says. “Take the current shutdown and overhaul of six locks and dams on the Illinois River. Shippers, other stakeholders and USACE worked to develop the solution to consolidate repairs to this year and 2023, rather than close the river every summer several years in a row, which we felt would be too disruptive.”

Wilkins believes careful planning is successfully addressing priority repairs needed to prevent failure while minimizing impact on shippers and their customers so far.

He notes, “Staging materials at each lock and dam, anticipating challenges and putting resources in place to manage potential surprises when the locks are dewatered should help keep projects on schedule. When the river reopens this fall, we expect significant mitigation of the risk of failure.”

Intersections: Better Multimodal Terminals Enhance Market Access

Access to various transportation modes gives Illinois farmers advantages, but the ability to shift from one mode to another provides even greater efficiency and economic opportunities. Multimodal terminals are the transloading facilities that move soybeans between systems.

The Illinois International Port District (IIPD) in Chicago bills itself as “the greatest multimodal terminal in North America,” says Executive Director Clayton Harris III. IIPD facilities give barges and oceangoing ships access to the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Mississippi River Basin. Six railroads’ facilities access the district within 12 miles of six major interstates.

“We can transload bulk commodities or containers between trucks, trains, barges and ships, with onsite storage to manage market volatility,” he says. “Multimodal terminals like ours offer opportunities to move soybeans at different rates of speed. The ability to receive and ship via different transportation systems provides access to more suppliers and end markets.”

grain truck

IIPD is just one of the multimodal terminals in Illinois, including 19 public ports, that received funding as part of the Illinois capital bill this year.

“Most of these ports, including IIPD, are prioritizing capital investments that improve access and efficiencies for railways,” Harris explains. “One reason is that using trains where possible can reduce truck traffic, which has environmental advantages.”

The funding program committed to a planned 2021 groundbreaking for a multimodal Alexander County, Cairo Port terminal, which will create a new shipping hub for ag commodities, containers and more for Southern Illinois. Harris believes digitalization, or gathering, using and disseminating data, will be key to continued improvements at multimodal terminals.

“Data about arrivals, loading and unloading time provide information to adjust scheduling between modes to better manage movement for every mode coming into the terminal,” he says. “Digitalization can make multimodal terminals more efficient to move commodities through.”

Harris is working to figure out where IIPD can fit in the soybean supply chain. “The economics and logistics at terminals are like putting together a 3-D puzzle. I want to learn where we could be inserted to help move soybeans from Illinois to customers around the world,” he says.