On-Dock Rail Conductor
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Mark Erickson’s fondest early memories of transportation infrastructure began in the front seat of his family’s car during road trips in the 1990s with his grandfather, Matthew O’Gara, a retired civil engineer with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
On one such trip, Erickson recalls, he was driving his grandparents back to their home in Sacramento after a weekend visit to his family's home in Millbrae, near San Francisco International Airport. Heading east on Interstate 80 near Crockett, Calif., they crossed the Carquinez Bridge, a pair of parallel bridges spanning the Carquinez Strait at the northeastern end of San Francisco Bay. The crossing inspired O’Gara, who had helped design the famous eastbound cantilever bridge in the late 1950s, to launch into the history of the bridge.
“My grandfather was quite the storyteller,” Erickson remembers warmly. “One of his proudest achievements was the Carquinez Bridge. He particularly loved sharing how well the bridge had performed over the years in earthquake-prone California. Even after the Loma Prieta (1989) and Northridge (1994) earthquakes, when the State’s earthquake structural engineering standards were enhanced, the eastbound Carquinez Bridge needed very little retrofitting, presumably because it was so well designed to begin with.”
Today, as a senior program manager and the deputy chief harbor engineer for the Port of Long Beach, Calif., Erickson keeps his family’s roots in civil engineering intact. While not focused on bridges per se, he is helping the Port bridge to a greener, more sustainable future through a dramatic expansion of its use of on-dock rail systems.
“The Port’s new Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility will allow us to load and unload inter-modal shipping containers efficiently from trains up to 10,000 feet long, all within the Port’s marine terminal complex,” explained Erickson. “This expanded capacity will streamline rail operations, reduce the need for local truck trips, reduce congestion on local streets and improve air quality.”
On-dock rail is a key component of intermodal transportation systems that allow freight to be moved in standardized shipping containers using ships, trucks, unmanned vehicles, and trains without any intermediate handling of the freight by humans.
Born in Sacramento, Erickson moved with his family to Millbrae at the age of two. He credits the early road trips with his grandfather and the ensuing tales of California transportation infrastructure with piquing his interest in civil engineering. After graduating high school in Millbrae where he excelled in math and science, Erickson completed his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of California, Davis, in 2002.
After college, he applied for a civil engineering job with the Port of Oakland, which manages both the Oakland airport and the city’s shipping port. Erickson had hoped to work on airport-related projects, but was assigned instead a role supporting the Port’s new maritime development plan, which included redevelopment of a former US army base and a near-dock rail terminal construction project.
For Erickson, it was love at first plan.
“I immediately got engaged, not just in design and construction, but also in a very high-level planning project,” he said. “And ever since, I’ve been hooked. I found it very interesting.”
After 12 years with the Port of Oakland, Erickson and his family moved to Southern California in 2015 to support a new professional opportunity for his wife. But it didn’t take him long to parlay his Oakland port and program management experience into a new opportunity with the Port of Long Beach.
“My rail yard development experience in Oakland created a natural fit for me to join the program management team in Long Beach to help lead its new railroad design and construction program,” Erickson observed.
Defining the Best Moves
The Port of Long Beach is the second busiest port in the U.S. by cargo tonnage and the volume of container shipments. Most of its freight moves through in the form of standardized, intermodal shipping containers. But it also handles non-containerized or bulk cargo as well, including petroleum products, lumber, new vehicles, salt, cement, and large machinery.
Containers arriving by ship are delivered to destinations in the Western U.S. either by truck or train depending on the distance. Similarly, freight destined for export by ship arrives either by truck or train.
Containers are unloaded from ships by manned or semi-automated cranes, then moved by truck or unmanned vehicle to a short-term container holding area within the Port. Containers are placed and stacked in this container yard according to their final destination.
“Our goal is to touch each container as few times as possible because every lift or move costs money,” explained Erickson.
Putting Efficiency on Track
Typically, he continues, containerized freight from Long Beach is (1) transported by truck to its final distribution location, (2) moved by truck to other rail yards in the Los Angeles area and then transported by rail to its final distribution location, or (3) loaded directly onto trains within the Port terminal complex and then moved by rail to distribution warehouses as far away as New Jersey.
“Our goal for the Pier B On-Dock Rail Support facility is to make on-dock rail a more efficient and cost-competitive option for delivering freight to the outer reaches of our truck delivery zone,” said Erickson. “Our new expanded facility will allow the Port to collect and load onto a single train all of the freight bound for a single destination, even a smaller, more intermediate market. Currently, that freight is delivered piecemeal to its destination using trucks and several different trains.”
The consolidation of freight onto a single train assembled entirely within the Port’s marine terminal complex also promises to eliminate the need for truck deliveries from the Port to regional rail yards in Los Angeles, an activity that currently accounts for 5-10% of the Port’s freight volume, he added.
Erickson clarified, however, that on-dock rail streamlines the Port’s handling of both imports and exports.
“Certain types of cargo such as such as soybeans or animal feed are transported in containers, but they are very heavy,” he said. “With on-dock rail, we can bring that cargo directly to our Long Beach terminals instead of having to move it by truck on a special overweight road route.”
Ballet at Work
One of the things Erickson loves most about his civil engineering work with the Port of Long Beach is being witness to the intricate “ballet” of freight handling activities by the Port’s modern fleet of cranes, trucks and unmanned vehicles.
“Most people don’t appreciate the infrastructure and hard work that goes into delivering goods from wherever they are manufactured overseas to say, the shelves of Best Buy,” he said. “The fact that I get to influence how that infrastructure is designed and how it works on a daily basis is pretty cool.”
Shaping the Future
Erickson’s days begin early in the suburbs of Long Beach where he and his wife are raising a six-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. He shares kid duty – getting them ready for school, fed and out the door to preschool or daycare – with his wife and a nanny who helps fill logistic gaps.
On days when he’s not delivering or picking up kids, Erickson often rides his bike to work. The four-plus mile trip helps him prepare for busy days shaping the future of the Port of Long Beach.
Erickson’s typical work day includes meetings with his immediate team of three project managers and the extended group of stakeholders who await the completion of the $870-million Pier B on-dock rail expansion activity, currently expected in 2032. From managing the details of how best to relocate utilities, to helping secure permits to expand the rail yard, to keeping his supervisors up to speed on his team’s progress, he thrives on the opportunities for problem solving that fill his days.
Getting the Job Done
Through it all, Erickson strives to focus on being positive, listening to his colleagues’ ideas, and most of all, enjoying the work.
“The infrastructure challenges are the easy part,” he observed. “It’s the working with people that I find most rewarding, most important, and most challenging.”
And the key to his team’s success, Erickson believes, even in an environment that puts a priority on hitting schedule and budget targets, is good communication.
“The way we measure success, ultimately, is by getting the job done,” he said. “If there’s an issue, how quickly did we resolve it? How well did we engage with our stakeholders and decision makers, obtain their input and make a decision? As a program manager, the secret sauce is really who can deal with adversity, quickly address it, and keep the project moving forward.”
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