(Dec. 30) Intermodal freight volume in North America has increased steadily since 2000 as more companies look for alternatives to the trucking.

Volume reached almost 12.9 million trailers and containers last year, up from 10.3 million in 2000, said Tom Malloy, vice president of business development at the Intermodal Association of North America, Calverton, Md.

Malloy said volume should be even higher once 2005 figures are in.

In early December, rail intermodal traffic was just over 11.1 million trailers or containers, according to the Association of American Railroads, Washington, D.C.

Last year, volume increased 8.6% from 2003, Malloy said. Trailer traffic increased 8.9% and container traffic by 8.6%. International trailer traffic increased 10.7% from 2003.

Intermodal freight transportation moves more high-end merchandise than bulk commodities. So an increase in traffic may signal growth in the economy, Malloy said.

Several factors are forcing companies — including produce distributors — to take a second look at intermodal freight transportation, he said.

“It is becoming a viable option as many of them continue to face driver shortages and rising fuel prices,” Malloy said.

Fuel prices have remained high since they began to spike over the summer, with the cost of crude oil consistently over $50 per barrel. Strong competition from the construction trade is making truck drivers a hot commodity.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp. has seen increased interest from produce distribution companies, said Misty Skipper, spokeswoman for the company.

The company operates an express service in conjunction with Union Pacific Distribution Services, Omaha, Neb. The service runs from California’s San Joaquin Valley to New York.

The company offers produce distributors a guarantee against spoilage, Skipper said.

The new year marks a new partnership between CSX, Union Pacific Railroad, Omaha; and Riverhead, N.Y.-based Ampco Distribution Services Management LLC, to move 55 refrigerated railcars from Washington state to New York, she said. The service is expected to make the trip in about 124 hours.

Skipper said some shippers began looking at rail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina because so many tractor-trailers were being used for relief efforts, she said.

The overall increase in intermodal transportation also is forcing the industry to develop a larger network of travel. That means more highways, trucking and railroad terminals and ocean vessels.