Eagle Rail, a disruptive idea for the hinterland / port interface

Eagle Rail, it is a fast and automated raised rail system to move containers from the ship to other areas from the port and to extra-port areas, leaving aside the congestion of trucks in the short section. It’s possible?. We want to know more about innovative concept in infrastructure and systems, so we talked with Mike
Wychocki, Chairman & CEO of EagleRail Container Logistics, – in the photo- company American who devised the system and sells it as an innovative solution, more efficient, safe and sustainable.
Here the details.

Megatrade: When I watching the Eagle Rail presentation video where the main idea is to take the incoming containers through an air rail, it implies a very big change in the handling of logistics in ports and extra-port areas. First of all, I would like to know how the idea came about.


Mike Wychocki: The idea was actually created in Sao Paulo, Brazil during a presentation on suspended passenger monorail/light-rail systems by EagleRail founder, J. Michael Meissner. Jose Newton Gama, then with CODESP, asked if the passenger technology could be adopted to suspend and shuttle fully loaded shipping containers…and especially up the Serra Do Mar for the Santos-to-Sao Paulo connection. After some re-engineering work back in Chicago, IL USA, the answer was yes, and the adventure began. That was 8-years ago, and the technology has greatly evolved since then, and we are still in discussion with the port of Santos and two other port opportunities in Brazil.


M: How is such a system developed in a port?. Do you sell the concept and then the port generates the infrastructure and the system to operate it, including cargo tracking? How much does it cost to implement such a system, does it require several parties to invest? Up to how many km the rail can be expanded?


TW: EagleRail actually manages the entire process and sees itself as a logistics service provider rather than a vendor of technology. We prefer to win a concession agreement and finance the development with private capital, providing a new service to the government stakeholders without needing precious government funding.
Each proposed system is customized and developed through a series of site-specific progressive studies, from topical and cursory, to heavy and intense. We start by looking at intermodal chokepoints or bottlenecks that are impeding port processing and utilization due to short-haul transportation problems, mainly in-and-out of the back-stacking areas. We then discuss where the majority of containers are going to or coming from. If high volumes are going to 1-3 near-by locations, like a railhead or large inland intermodal depot (dry port) or an economic trade zone, then we discuss the possibility of removing short-haul drayage trucking from these operations and automating these high-volume, repetitive routes. 

As a result, the trucks can be deployed to other areas of the operations instead, thus eliminating the congestion caused by these short-haul container transfers.

EagleRail offers A-to-Z services…container intermodal traffic-consulting, site-specific system design and engineering, construction and installation, software customization for integration to their port operating systems. In addition, we plan to operate and maintain the system, providing data tracking and exception scheduling in concert with the ports, railroads and trucking firms.

We create unique companies for each installation with several local and regional partners, typically in a public-private partnership arrangement. So yes, many players are involved including the port authority, local governments, local rail providers, equity investors and debt financiers to name a few. It literally ‘takes a village’ to raise an EagleRail system, but everyone in the village wins financially, socially and environmentally.

A typical two-lane, bi-directional system, including all lifting and shuttling equipment is very affordable on a per move basis and are very competitive with short-haul truck pricing. But those moves create less road congestion, less pollution/emissions and more desirable digital jobs…Plus, with more data output, instant location visibility and speed-to-destination. Most importantly, an EagleRail system allows ports to turn slots faster and handle more containers in the same real estate footprint.

An EagleRail system can be designed to run at any length that is required in order to connect a seaport to an inland location, and most of the 45+ studies we have done to date are in the 2km-10km range. However, several, like Santos to Sao Paulo, are in the 30km – 50km range. With enough volume, any length can be profitable, but it becomes less expensive to set the tracks back down on the ground for long distances and hence the transfer to traditional ground rail.


M: Logistics specialists say that sometimes solutions are brought from other areas that seek more efficiency, but because they are not «logistical» they fail 

TW: We could not agree more! Many out-of-the-box solutions brought to the port industry in the last 10-20 years were based on newer technologies just looking for another usage, as in the example of Mag Lev or even the HyperLoop tube. But those are not focused on the actual supply-chain and logistics throughput challenges being faced. Before I got involved in EagleRail and invested in it, I made sure that we researched real challenges of the supply chain and were sure we were solving a real transportation problem with technology that both fit in with current and near-future states, but also supplemented other technologies and was well-suited specifically to supply-chain logistics. And I think EagleRail’s automated, overhead light-rail conveyance does just that – checks all those boxes.


M:  Its an old concept? What would I say about it …

TW: Yes, I agree parts of the concept already exist. People have been lifting and shuttling containers for 60 years but adding the proper digital tools and better integration into the actual supply chain process is what is making EagleRail a success.
Knowing that the technology exists and is proven is a positive for early adopters. We are repurposing existing technologies in new ways. We like to say we are the best mixture of short-line railroads and trucks – capacity of rail, but each container can move independently like with a truck. And honestly, sometimes new technology is all about the timing of the market introduction…even seven years ago when I first became involved, operators were less open to the concept than they are now, especially with the larger ships causing “bunching” in the process, pressure on shoreline development and the new trends in the growth of inland container depots (ICDs)…the market is now very, very receptive.


M: You comment that what Eagle Rail are doing with a container is what Amazon is doing with a box today … Could you expand on that concept?

TW: It is our ‘elevator pitch’ and quickest analogy…warehouse automation has removed some the of the hard and monotonous manual labor from repetitive lifting and short horizontal movements, and up-skilled those jobs to manage that automation. Repetitive robotic lifting and shuttling is more accurate, faster, cheaper, safer and has real-time and historical data-tracking included. We have now moved that same automated indoor warehouse concept to outdoor areas and with much greater weights, but with all of the same benefits. This also comes with other benefits like less congested roads and less diesel pollution.

The good news is that all international container handling equipment, and most of the handling processes, are exactly the same universally. As are common port and intermodal goals such as volume growth, less dwell time and real estate efficiency, better safety and more integrated automation and data reporting. Truthfully, we are solving the one problem everyone wants solved, but no one wanted to address…better and faster short-haul conveyance. No one’s process is being threatened, only improved…the bigger ships can have more room to unload, the port operators can discharge import boxes faster and accept export boxes “just in time”. Plus, we improve and speed-up the Customs process and allow for ports to grow without expanding shoreline real estate. We don’t change the process, just improve the speed, make it cleaner, more efficient and with better data tracking within that very same process. The only process we disrupt is the dirty, short-haul drayage trucking, while re-deploying the drivers to the longer routes where they are still needed. We feel like we are fixing the last broken part of the supply chain that will re-invigorate all other steps.


M: Here the infrastructure is linked with the digital process?

TW: Yes, it is a great combination of hardware and software that make EagleRail’s patented system work. Our software, Eagle-I, interfaces with the port’s terminal operating system in order to determine where the containers need to be sent and by when. Our algorithms create priority and sequence schedules that also contain whatever digital data digitally is available on that container for transfer to us, and from us. We are also building in distributed ledger content API’s so we can be ready for the coming blockchain transformation in the shipping and intermodal industries. And our customers can track their containers in real time via online tracking apps similar to the larger shipping companies like DHL.


 M: On the one hand, how are the systems developed in terms of lifting the containers, the rails, is all this certified? … Who manufactures it? How is it installed?…

TW: EagleRail has been designing the system in stages over the past 5-years with several international EPC firms in the U.S. and abroad. We divide our system into three primary parts, 1. The superstructure like columns, truss, rail and switches, 2. The electro-mechanical portions like the lifters and carriers, and 3. Control and Logistics software. Each portion is being developed with world-class partners that are recognized leaders in each area, and being brought together by our global EPC partners, SNC-Lavalin and Atkins. Certification will be done both during the demonstration phases by independent engineering organizations as well as by local inspectors at each installation site.

A sizable benefit of EagleRail is our “invest locally” plan to site-design, manufacture and install as much as the superstructure in local markets where materials and labor forces are readily available and qualified. As 50%+ of our construction budget is in the superstructure, this will bring tens of millions of dollars to the local economies during short-term development and then long-term digital jobs during the operational phases.


M:Beyond taking the containers out of the port in a more agile and sustainable, with more efficiency. What improvements are there in terms of digital efficiency to the port, brought by the system that generates fewer papers … and how other forms such as blockchain can be inserted, especially due to pressure from shipping companies seeking efficiencies.


TW: As mentioned earlier, when more elements of intermodal paperwork are digitized and put onto the various blockchain platforms that will be universally adopted, the distributed ledgers will allow various parties to interact in real time with their portions of the data, be it Bills of Lading, schedules, Customs Clearances, proofs of insurance and payment settlements. We believe the entire process will be much more efficient when the global supply-chain moves away from old, short-haul trucks using mobile phone and clipboards to a truly seamless, digital data-flow that connects the ship to the port to Customs Clearance to short-haul and then long-haul intermodal. Short-haul drayage trucking is both the more polluting and least data-centric portion of the process…so automating and digitizing this step will finally fully unlock the potential of port efficiencies and make all of the previous investments in automation more valuable.


M; Obviously it can be developed for other modes and promote intermodalism….


TW: One of the most exciting and forward-looking parts of EagleRail’s automated, overhead patented conveyance system is that it can be adopted to carry many other types of newly or soon-to-be containerized goods…, like automobiles or even now grains and liquids. We are also developing other types of lifting and carrying attachments for non-corner-lifting platforms with various hooks and grapples for coil steel, lumber, etc. We believe, and the market has confirmed, that a new type of short-haul intermodalism is needed across the infrastructure-modality space, and ours is the best of truck and rail combined, plus it doesn’t


M: You have had contacts with terminals and shipping companies, how have they responded?

TW: The response to our market outreach has been phenomenal. With maybe one exception, our over 45+ presentations to ports and intermodal companies has been very positive with the main question always being “When will I be able to see it working as this has strong applications for our situation.” The concept is pretty spot-on for today’s intermodal bottlenecks caused by the larger ships and inland container relief yards. In fact, many people have said that, “It is so obvious, why has no one done this before?” And the honest answer is a few previous attempts with conceptual drawings were introduced, but they had two problems…first, they were pushing a particular new technology looking for another application and not necessarily a workflow improvement, while EagleRail is solely focused on integration with the supply chain and existing equipment. Second, the time wasn’t right as the bigger container ships were not yet around, and the ports were not as landlocked and congested as they are now. When you add the current short-haul driver shortage you have the perfect intermodal storm in most port locations – and the time for automated, overhead conveyance is perfect.

And the time for EagleRail is right now.

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