Port of Wilmington recently ranked as most productive in North America; new intermodal and maritime services launched.

The North Carolina State Ports Authority has recorded a number of impressive accomplishments in recent months, including the launch of new intermodal and maritime services and healthy year-over-year cargo growth in several categories. The Port of Wilmington was also recently ranked as the most productive port in North America in 2022 by the World Bank and S&P Global Market Intelligence. In October, North Carolina ports began participation in a new interoperable chassis pool covering five states in the Southeast.

In September, the Wilmington-Rocky Mount Express intermodal service was launched, providing daily overnight rail service between the Port of Wilmington and CSX’s new Carolina Connector (CCX) intermodal terminal in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, located on the Class I rail carrier’s main line. The new service provides shippers with direct access to northeastern North Carolina markets as well as communities along the north-south Interstate-95 corridor. The CCX intermodal terminal has a lift capacity of 110,000 containers per year.

Wilmington Midwest Express

The recent launch of the Wilmington Midwest Express, which also provides intermodal transit via the CCX terminal, provides customers of the Port of Wilmington with direct rail access to Chicago and other Midwestern markets. Both of these express rail services, together with the Queen City Express, which provides rail service to the Charlotte Inland Port via CSX, led to an almost 75% year-over-year growth in intermodal rail volume at the Port of Wilmington and a record year for intermodal volume in fiscal year 2023, which ended on June 30. The Port of Wilmington’s express rail services in total accounted for 9% of total container volume moving through the port in fiscal year 2023, while the Midwest Express and the Queen City Express averaged over 550 TEU per week.

“We are committed to continued collaboration with CSX,” said Brian Clark, executive director of the North Carolina State Ports Authority, of the intermodal services, “and to identify new inland markets in North Carolina and beyond that will benefit from efficient and low-cost intermodal rail service from the Port of Wilmington.”

Commenting on the Port of Wilmington’s top ranking for efficiency, Clark attributed the achievement to the port’s “critical infrastructure improvements,” adding that “our critical infrastructure improvements have allowed us to maintain our best-in-class vessel productivity” with “no on-port dwell.” Wilmington’s ranking moved up three spots in the latest World Bank and S&P Global Container Port Performance Index (CPPI). The same index also ranks the Port of Wilmington as the 44th most productive in the world, up from 49th a year ago, out of the total of 348 included in the study.

Over the past five years, North Carolina ports have invested over $356 million in infrastructure improvement projects at its facilities, including turning basin expansion, harbor deepening, and berth renovation and expansion. A new container gate complex and expanded container yard will help facilitate the port’s participation in SACP 3.0, the new interoperable chassis pool serving South Atlantic ports, which is comprised of 45,000 chassis servicing 75 locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. (See box on page 26)

Other on-port projects in Wilmington include a new intermodal rail facility, on-dock rail replacement, and several paving projects. Phase 2 of Wilmington’s refrigerated container yard expansion project is expected to double Wilmington’s plug capacity. Wilmington’s new on-dock intermodal facility will introduce an additional 5,000 feet of working track and specialized container handling equipment.

Morehead City and Port of Wilmington

On-port projects in the Port of Morehead City include berth improvements, crane rail extensions, and new warehousing space. Last year, Morehead City was awarded $1.7 million by the U.S. Department of Transportations’ Maritime Administration (MARAD) for the port’s Radio Island Rail Improvements Project. That project will replace existing tracks, ballast, and ties, as well as turnouts, switches, and crossing surface treatments.

The North Carolina State Ports Authority continues to focus on cold chain investments at the Port of Wilmington. Phase 2 of Wilmington’s refrigerated container yard expansion project is nearly complete and is expected to open within weeks. Those improvements will nearly double the Port of Wilmington’s plug capacity to almost 1,600. Given the growth trajectory, initial site work for a future Phase 3 was included in Phase 2.

NC Ports is exploring putting its port logistics assets to use for the offshore wind industry, with wind facilities at the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City under consideration. A recent North Carolina Department of Commerce report recommended assessing “the competitiveness of an installation port along the southern North Carolina coast” and noted that using local facilities will “allow North Carolina earlier access to supply offshore wind projects.” The Kitty Hawk Offshore project, a 2.5-gigawatt installation 27 miles off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is scheduled to begin operations next year.

When it comes to maritime services, the Port of Wilmington added the 2M Emerald/TP16/ZSA Service to its rotation as well as Ellerman City Liners to its roster of carriers. The 2M service expanded Wilmington’s reach to include Singapore, Xiamen, Yantian, and Bilbao. Ellerman City’s bi-weekly USX service expanded North Carolina ports’ access to the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Tilbury.

“Expanding our connectivity in key routes is a critical component of our strategic plan,” said Clark.

Container volume through the Port of Wilmington increased by 7% year over year in fiscal year 2023, and North Carolina ports posted a 12% year-over-year growth clip for general cargo volume, marking a record year for tonnage and, at $79.3 million, a record for operating revenue as well. The Port of Wilmington and the Port of Morehead City together moved a total of 4.6 million tons of bulk and breakbulk cargo in fiscal year 2023.

The strong breakbulk performance was driven by construction and building products, steel, rubber, pulp and paper products, and project cargo such as locomotives, fiber pipe, and fuselage. The growth in bulk cargo volume was driven primarily by fertilizer, grain, and feed, and the export of woodchips and wood pellets.

“Our strategic decision to remain diversified between containers and general cargo continues to serve us well,” said Clark, “and will remain our focus going forward.”