Double-stacked containers, including Hapag-Lloyd boxes, move on a Norfolk Southern train in a new intermodal offering linking The Port of Virginia with the U.S. West Coast.

When The Port of Virginia, Hapag-Lloyd and Norfolk Southern teamed this year to launch a leading-edge intermodal service to reliably deliver imported containers to the U.S. West Coast, they might not have imagined their new twist on landbridging would be serving California exporters in a nutty way.

Not only has the innovative service been gaining import volumes since commenced in April, but it also has been furnishing a much-needed outlet to global markets for California-grown almonds and pistachios, averting West Coast port bottlenecks and Panama Canal transits.

“We are seeing significant interest out of the ag [agricultural] sector,” said Thomas D. Capozzi, chief sales and marketing officer of Virginia International Terminals LLC, the Virginia Port Authority’s private terminal-operating subsidiary. “Predictability is what is drawing that interest.”

Norfolk Southern’s media relations manager, Connor Spielmaker, confirmed the rising activity in both directions of the OceaNS Bridge Express, or OBE, service.

“As I expected, no specific numbers, but, yes, we are moving fruits/nuts eastbound for export,” Spielmaker told AJOT. “General-numbers-wise, our weekly volume coming eastbound is expected to be up 100 percent versus when we started the service. We continue to see strong volumes on the import side as well.”

California farms produce about 82 percent of the world’s almonds and 100 percent of the U.S. commercial supply, while more than 98 percent of all pistachios produced in the United States are grown in California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Recently, California nut producers have been challenged to find dependable capacity for exporting their goods, complaining not only of logjams at the Port of Oakland and other West Coast outlets but also of a COVID-era-accelerated trend for ocean carriers to rush empty containers back to Asia to get the next lucrative loads of U.S.-bound consumer goods rather than wait in Northern California to be filled with almonds for export to key markets in Europe and Asia.

Under the new intermodal service, containers arrive weekly on Hapag-Lloyd containerships from Europe at The Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals, or NIT, and are double-stacked on Norfolk Southern trains for transport to Chicago, where they are switched to Union Pacific rail for delivery to Los Angeles and Oakland. The eastbound process is similar but in reverse.

Capozzi cited The Port of Virginia’s efficiencies and expanding intermodal rail capacity as keys to Hapag-Lloyd’s decision to replace its Mediterranean Pacific Service with a new, eight-vessel Mediterranean Gulf Express offering, introducing the Norfolk call to its rotation from the ports of Livorno and Genoa in Italy and Barcelona and Valencia in Spain.

The $90 million project to boost NIT’s annual rail throughput capability to 610,000 units from the current 350,000 units is on pace for late 2023 completion, to raise The Port of Virginia’s overall yearly lift capacity to 1.1 million rail units.

The rail improvements are part of a multiyear, $1.4 billion infrastructure enhancement initiative at The Port of Virginia, which in July reported having moved a record 3.7 million 20-foot-equivalent container units in its fiscal year ended June 30, up 14.7 percent from its prior all-time high, realized in the preceding fiscal year.

“We are building the reputation as an East Coast alternative to ports that are having to address congestion issues,” Stephen A. Edwards, The Port of Virginia’s chief executive officer and executive director, said in announcing the record figures.