This coming January the Port of Virginia (POV) will launch a new intermodal rail system at its Norfolk International Terminals facility (NIT), using technology that has already proven fruitful at its Portsmouth terminal, the Virginia International Gateway (VIG). The move is part of a long-term program to employ new technology that enhances efficiency and productivity at a time when the POV is seeing an increase in traffic stemming from a change in import sourcing. More cargo that had been shipping from China is now coming from the Indian subcontinent and countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. The shortest route to the U.S. from those locales is through the Suez Canal, and the closest ports to that canal are on the East Coast.

Virginia International Gateway

Intermodal Exchanges

“About five years ago we created a new concept for how intermodal exchanges on a container terminal would work,” said Rich Ceci, Senior VP Technology & Project Management at The Port of Virginia. “The idea was rather than build seven or eight tracks with a big crane over the top, and maybe as many as four or five cranes operating on those same tracks serving sections of the rail when an exchange occurs, we would build only four tracks. We would then use less expensive cranes that would be much lighter and faster. We modeled the system carefully, spending a lot of time on engineering and simulation modelling. We built the new design at our Portsmouth terminal, the Virginia International Gateway (VIG), taking out the rail we had built in 2007 and completely replaced it.”

So far, results have been favorable. “The new system has proven to be very successful in terms of productivity,” said Ceci. “Before its installation we had the ability to do about 78,000 to 100,000 rail containers per year here at the Virginia International Gateway. The new facility is capable of doing 480,000. So, we basically multiplied our capacity just short of 500%.”

Rich Ceci, Senior VP Technology & Project Mgt., Port of Virginia

And because the new system has proven to be safe, the port has also been able to implement remotely operated intermodal cranes that move containers between trains and its internal transportation system. “I think we’re the only port in the United States that are doing that right now,” said Ceci. “Installing remotely operated cranes is an expensive operation, and we likely would not have considered doing it if we were not also rebuilding the entire facility.”

First Phase of NIT Project

The first $82 million phase of the NIT project, scheduled to come online in January, is part of a larger effort to convert the entire port to the use of the new technology over the next couple of years. These moves come as part of a larger $1.4 billion package dubbed the Gateway Investment Program, focused on expanding rail capacity, modernizing the terminals, and dredging the commercial channels and the Norfolk Harbor to at least 55 feet deep, as well as widening it in some areas to allow for safe two-way passage of ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs). “That effort will make us the deepest and widest port on the US East Coast,” said Joseph D. Harris, spokesman for the Virginia Port Authority. “The goal is to provide safe passage for two-way traffic of the ultra large container ships and attract more cargo to the Port of Virginia.” One advantage that the POV has, he added, is the lack of overhead harbor obstructions. Rather than bridges, the port has tunnels. This advantage is becoming more important as ships get taller.

The emphasis the port is placing on its intermodal initiatives reflects the great importance of rail in the port’s functioning. Harris noted that rail is a very important component of the port’s success, as it moves about a third of its cargo by train, the largest portion relative to volume of any East Coast port. “We fully believe that with the expansions we are doing we can get that number up to around 40%.”

The port is the beneficiary of the $391 Million “Heartland Corridor” project, providing an intermodal link from the POV to the U.S. Midwest, with Chicago as its nominal end point. In addition to additional freight capacity, the project was intended to help relieve truck congestion on the interstates, improve double stack transit times, reduce greenhouse emissions, and open up international trade.

“We were a big supporter of the Heartland Corridor project, which was the initiative of the Norfolk Southern railroad,” said Harris. “A lot of our cargo transits on that corridor. Norfolk Southern’s been a great intermodal partner for many years, and the goal is to continue the collaboration we have with them.”

Joseph D. Harris, VPA

Energy Savings and Sustainability

Rail has significant energy savings and a sustainability component since a single train can carry the cargo of hundreds of trucks. “There’s a reduction in carbon emissions, and there’s a reduction in wear and tear on roads,” noted Harris. And that fits right in with the port’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040. “We’ve committed to draw all of our power needs from renewable sources,” said Harris. “The goal is to get away from using fossil fuels to drive our operations, and we’re well on our way.” The port, which now draws 69% of its electric consumption from clean energy, is working with electric companies to ensure that their power comes from sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear. Harris gives the example of Virginia Inland Port, which pulls all of its power from a solar farm administered by the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.

POV’s goal is to align itself with those consumers, logistics companies, retailers, and ocean carriers who are looking for ways to green up their supply chains. “Our commitment to sustainability makes us the logical choice for them,” said Harris. “We’re focused on being the most modern gateway in America. We’re going to be a leader on the East Coast and probably in the nation on this issue.”


Rich Ceci will be speaking at the Container Terminal Automation Conference North America, sponsored by Port Technology International magazine, scheduled for Nov 14 and 15, 2023, in Norfolk, Va. His topic will be container terminal automation lessons learned, based on 20 years of experience at the Port of Virginia.