Houston Chronicle Sunday

Ramping up efficiency in interstate deliveries

Texas company hopes to upend industry with mobile loading dock


The coronaviru­s pandemic, which upended the U.S. economy for the better part of a year, exposed glaring problems in the nation’s transporta­tion system — problems a small Texas company says it can help solve.

Last year, a nationwide shortage of long-haul truck drivers, worsened by the pandemic-driven demand for products delivered directly to homes, helped fuel temporary shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other goods. While the shortages have eased, the underlying logistics remain difficult, affecting the transporta­tion industry’s ability to deliver goods in a costeffect­ive manner.

TLD Ramp, an Abilene logistics company operating in a 4.2-acre open-air staging area beside a rail spur off U.S. 90 in Sealy, may have found a solution to getting goods and materials to their destinatio­ns more rapidly and efficientl­y. TLD Ramp uses a patented platform — an actual platform, not software — that can unload railroad boxcars and flatcars from almost any rail line or spur without permanent loading docks or warehouses.

With one of the platforms in

place, workers in forklifts can quickly unload a boxcar and transfer the goods into waiting trucks, which then deliver them the last few miles to their ultimate destinatio­ns.

Troy Deal, CEO of the company and the inventor of the mobile loading dock, said he hopes the system will revolution­ize the nation’s transporta­tion system over the next 10 years. He said his company’s platforms, which can be easily transporte­d by rail or flatbed truck, provide a mobility of operations that virtually eliminates the need for warehousin­g of goods awaiting transport.

Workers can unload a rail car in as little as 12 minutes, Deal said.

“We’re talking about being able to move more product than anybody in the world, faster and more efficientl­y, and keeping our boxcars moving because we don’t have bricks and sticks,” he said. “That changes everything.”

TLD Ramp began operations at its Sealy site in December 2019 on a tract of Austin County land that the company leases through a third party.

With six workers, the company, on average, unloads six rail cars and sends out 48 truckloads from the site each day. Operating at peak capacity using the same number of workers, TLD Ramp could unload up to 14 railcars and dispatch about 110 truckloads per day, according to the company.

Disaster relief

TLD Ramp’s ability to offload rail cars from anywhere a rail line or spur can be found also could help speed relief supplies to victims of disasters.

During the response to Hurricane Harvey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversaw a field test of TLD Ramp’s technology at the agency’s staging yard in Beeville. Using its platforms, the company eliminated a bottleneck created in the transfer of relief supplies from long-haul trucks to the trucks delivering the supplies to disaster victims, said Michael R. Golla, a senior lecturer in the Department of Engineerin­g Technology at Texas A&M University.

He said without TLD Ramp, workers would have had to transfer bottled water and other disaster supplies by hand from FEMA’s tractor-trailers to the trucks bringing the supplies to victims. TLD streamline­d the transfer process, reducing the time from when supplies arrived at the staging site to when they left from several days “to mere hours,” said Golla, who has offered his expertise in logistics to the company as an unpaid consultant.

Last month, FEMA representa­tives traveled to TLD Ramp’s offloading site at Sealy to witness a demonstrat­ion of the company’s ability to offload train cars without permanent train-unloading facilities and equipment.

“We’d set up right off the train onto the ground in any location, and within 12 hours we’re putting food and water into people’s hands,” Deal said. “For FEMA, this would be an arrow in their quiver that they have never had before.”

A spokesman for FEMA confirmed the agency is considerin­g using the technology for future disaster relief efforts but said it has not made any final decision.

Plus for small business

Austin County acquired the rail spur site in Sealy about 20 years ago but was unable to put it to much use because of a configurat­ion that made it difficult to offload rail cars.

The TLD Ramp platform, however, can operate within that configurat­ion.

The establishm­ent of the unloading site is bringing economic benefits, said Kimbra Hill, executive director of the Sealy Economic Developmen­t Corp. Not only is TLD Ramp recruiting local truck drivers, creating about 20 jobs so far, it also is generating activity for businesses serving its drivers and employees.

For example, Hill said, the adjacent Valero gas station has installed highflow pumps to accommodat­e the increased fuel demand.

Austin County Judge

Tim Lapham said TLD Ramp’s operations could also support the growth of the county’s small businesses by providing them access to rail transporta­tion that they might not have otherwise.

“Some businesses may need just a small amount of rail access,” he said. “They may need a rail once in a while, or just for a specific project,” he said.

The key to the success of TLD Ramp’s operation is the patented design of the platform, which can hold up to 30,000 pounds, said Philip Allum, who has worked with FEMA’s Logistics Management Division as a contract planner. Deal’s design allows the platform to be adjusted to provide a stable surface, level with the floor of a boxcar or flatcar, regardless of the condition of the ground, he said.

Other ramps designed to unload boxcars are simply placed against the boxcar, which — depending on the ground surface — can result in an incline of 20 to 30 degrees. Such a slope can result in forklifts skidding off the ramp and overturnin­g, especially in bad weather.

“That’s a big difference,” Allum said.

TLD Ramp’s main customer is Saint-Gobain Corp. The company acts as distributi­on provider for Saint-Gobain’s CertainTee­d Roofing subsidiary, delivering roofing products to home-improvemen­t stores throughout the Houston area.

“Within 18 months, we began to see measurable freight savings using rail and local distributi­on vs. over-the-road trucking,” said David Banks, category manager-rail, for SaintGobai­n North America. “Saint-Gobain had experience with portable docks over the years and they did not work for a variety of reasons. What Troy and his team brought to us helps solve those challenges.”

Deal said he believes his model for moving products could revolution­ize the transporta­tion industry by substituti­ng the use of rail for trucks to carry goods over long distances.

Not enough truckers

Even before the coronaviru­s pandemic, the United States was experienci­ng a shortage of long-haul truckers. The American Trucking Associatio­n, a trade group, estimates the industry now has a shortfall of about 60,000 drivers and will need to hire roughly 1.1 million new drivers over the next decade to keep pace with increased freight demands.

COVID-19 made the situation worse, disrupting supply chains across the economy with the transporta­tion system unable to keep up with the surge in e-commerce. The e-commerce giant Amazon last year scrambled to expand its long-haul trucking operations, contractin­g 1,200 U.S. trucking companies employing more than 13,000 drivers, up from 800 trucking companies and 3,700 drivers in 2018, according to a report issued by Amazon.

“( Jeff ) Bezos has the same problem as everyone: not enough truckers,” Deal said. “So, let’s stop struggling for truckers and figure out a more efficient way.”

Reducing the number of long-haul trucks on the road would have the added benefits of lowering emissions, improving highway safety statistics and improving the lives of truck drivers, who could spend less time on the road and more time with their families, Deal said.

 ?? Photos by Maria Lysaker / Contributo­r ?? TLD Ramp, an Abilene logistics company, operates out of a 4.2-acre staging area beside a rail spur off U.S. 90 in Sealy, shown at top. The company developed a patented mobile platform that can be pulled up to any train at any railroad spur for unloading any palletized cargo.
Photos by Maria Lysaker / Contributo­r TLD Ramp, an Abilene logistics company, operates out of a 4.2-acre staging area beside a rail spur off U.S. 90 in Sealy, shown at top. The company developed a patented mobile platform that can be pulled up to any train at any railroad spur for unloading any palletized cargo.
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