A Port on the Plains

The Kansas City Star ran an article today about a 1,300-acre logistics center southwest of KC recently opened by BNSF, Warren Buffett’s railroad. What’s particularly interesting about the article, which you can find here http://www.kansascity.com/2014/01/13/4750127/hail-the-humble-container.html, is that the author, Kevin Collison, treats the massive new facility not as a railyard but as a transfer point on global supply chains.  The article quotes me, but perhaps the most important quotation is from a BNSF spokesman, who says, “We’re in the transportation business.” No railroad guy would have said such a thing in pre-container days; back then, railroads thought they were in the railroad business. Since then, they’ve figured out that their job is moving cargo. Trains are merely a tool to help do that, not the railroad’s reason for being.

So BNSF looks at its logistics center as a port. A seaport, after all, is nothing more than a point where transportation modes come together; it has massive cranes that move containers between oceangoing vehicles and land-based vehicles. The logistics center serves the same function, using massive cranes that move containers between vehicles that travel on rails and vehicles that travel on roads. As they travel internationally, containers will make a switch in Kansas City, another in a West Coast ocean port such as Long Beach or Oakland, another at a foreign seaport, and perhaps a fourth at an inland logistics center in China or India. BNSF’s new facility  is expected eventually to handle 1.5 million containers a year, more than all but a handful of U.S. seaports. Although the ocean is not close at hand, the logistics center really does make KC a port on the plains.

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