Ports & Terminals

Port Houston Sees New Intermodal Options, Export Container Growth

Port Houston, the nation’s fifth largest container port by TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), extended its reach well inland in June with the addition of intermodal container service by both Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and BNSF Railway.

Union Pacific launched its new service options from the port’s Barbours Cut Container Terminal on June 1. Now, containers can be loaded directly onto Union Pacific railcars and transported to Denver; Salt Lake City; Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles; and El Paso, Texas. The new service originating from Barbours Cut eliminates the need to truck containers about 30 miles to the nearest rail facility.

“Union Pacific is always looking for ways to save our customers time, while providing them more options and greater ease to our rail network,” said Kari Kirchhoefer, a senior vice president for UP. “The new on-dock terminal service provides additional routing options to key metropolitan markets, while helping customers enhance their efficiency.”

Likewise, BNSF launched service between Barbours Cut and the Dallas-Fort Worth area and to Denver starting June 2. Rail service between Barbours Cut and the BNSF intermodal facility in Alliance, Texas, will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while the direct run to Denver will operate on Fridays.

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“Based on vessel arrival, these new intermodal service schedule updates have the potential to increase in frequency to meet growing intermodal demand at the Port of Houston,” BNSF said in announcing the new service options.

Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther said the new intermodal service options highlight the port’s growth potential.

“The addition of rail service offers an exciting intermodal option for our customers,” Guenther said. “Port Houston is a top five container port and growing fast. These rail options help ensure efficient movement of goods and open up new markets.”

Port Houston handled a total of 1,542,392 TEUs through May, which is 2 percent behind last year’s record volumes. Loaded imports in May totaled 139,745 TEUs. That’s 12 percent lower than May 2022, yet still marks the second-highest May import volume in the port’s history.

And while year-to-date imports through May totaled 781,655 TEUs (down 3 percent from last year), exports have continued to rise. Loaded exports were up 3 percent in May compared to last year. For the year, loaded outbound containers totaled 569,502 TEUs as of the end of May, marking a 14 percent rise from last year. The port attributed much of that demand to resin exports.

Notably, Houston’s import and export container business through May was balanced, with a slight edge of 50.6 percent on the import side.

On the general, bulk and breakbulk side, steel products at Port Houston, including standard rails and tubular goods, are up this year compared to 2022. Total steel imports, though, are down 14 percent year over year at just over 2 million tons. Auto imports are up 48 percent this year compared to 2022.

“As the fastest growing and now the fifth-largest container port in the U.S., we must remain proactive and well-equipped to meet the needs of our customers,” Guenther said. “Infrastructure investments remain a priority at Port Houston, along with the expansion of the Houston Ship Channel, which is already improving vessel transit times as part of segment 1A’s completion.”

Concurrent with the work to expand the Houston Ship Channel, the port continues to improve and expand its cargo-handling capabilities. The port recently put 16 new clean diesel yard mules into service at its container terminals, thanks in part to a Sea Port Environmental Grant, and three new Neo-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes are en route to the Bayport Container Terminal. Bayport’s new Wharf 6 is expected to begin servicing vessels in the third quarter of this year.

Economic Impact Study

In late May, the port announced results of an economic impact study of Port Houston and the entire Houston Ship Channel. The study examined the impact of the eight public terminals and more than 200 private terminals scattered along the ship channel. According to John Martin Associates, the firm that conducted the study, the Houston Ship Channel had a $906 billion economic impact on the United States in 2022, which amounted to a 13 percent increase over four years. Houston Ship Channel marine cargo alone in 2022 generated $439 billion in economic activity for the state of Texas.

In addition, the ship channel supported 3.4 million jobs nationally and 1.5 million jobs in Texas, including close to 190,000 new Texas jobs since 2018.

Guenther said the port’s steady growth and widening reach make a strong case for ongoing investments in port facilities and the expansion of the Houston Ship Channel.

“Port Houston values its role as local stewards of the channel and all the people it supports,” Guenther said. “Continued strong investment in this vital waterway and the public marine terminals we manage is critical to ensuring a resilient supply chain that is always prepared to service the manufacturers, exporters, importers and consumers that count on us every day.”