Shipping conainers sit ready for transport via rail off of Pier J at the Port of Long Beach Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Shipping containers at the San Pedro Bay port complex destined for rail will soon have an expedited path out of Long Beach and Los Angeles thanks to a massive rail facility announced by BNSF Railway.

The rail company, which operates one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America with 32,500 miles of tracks, unveiled plans last month for the 4,500-acre Barstow International Gateway. The project consists of a rail yard, intermodal facility and warehouses for transloading freight from international to domestic containers.

The facility will allow the direct transfer of containers from ships at the twin ports to trains that will carry them through the Alameda Corridor onto the BNSF mainline up to Barstow. Once at the hub, containers will be processed using green cargo-handling equipment and staged for trains moving east along BNSF’s network.

“By allowing for more efficient transfer of cargo directly between ships and rail, the Barstow International Gateway will maximize rail and distribution efficiency regionally and across the U.S. supply chain and reduce truck traffic and freeway congestion in the Los Angeles Basin and the Inland Empire,” BNSF President and CEO Katie Farmer said in a statement.

Westbound freight also will be processed more efficiently as it works its way to the ports and other California terminals, according to the company.

The ports of Long Beach and LA have been working for years to increase the percentage of containers that are transported out of the complex via rail. During normal operations, Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said up to 28% of containers are moved via rail—though, at some points during the pandemic, that dropped closer to 20%.

With the introduction of new rail projects, such as Long Beach’s nearly $1.6 billion Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility, Cordero said the percentage of containers moving by rail could reach as high as 38% in the years to come, meaning fewer trucks congesting the roads and less pollution.

“When you put that together with the BNSF endeavor, that will really elevate what we are able to do in terms of maximizing cargo velocity,” Cordero told the Business Journal. “These two projects complement each other.”

The $1.5 billion state-of-the-art facility in Barstow is the first of its kind to be developed by a Class 1 railroad. No public funds will be used for the project.

The BNSF project is the second logistics development planned for the Mojave Desert announced this year. In August, the Kern County Board of Supervisors announced its support for Houston-based Pioneer Partners’ 400-acre Mojave Inland Port, which also will accept containers by rail from the San Pedro Bay ports via the Union Pacific Railroad.

No construction schedules have been announced for either project.

Throughout the pandemic, the San Pedro Bay ports experienced a historic surge in cargo volumes, which resulted in a backlog of ships waiting to enter the complex and increased dwell times for containers waiting to leave the ports after being unloaded.

At the peak congestion, the number of containers on dock awaiting rail transport for nine days or more in Long Beach was 15,206 on July 10, according to port data. As of Nov. 8, that figure had dropped to 1,329, its lowest point since mid-February.

While supply chain congestion on the West Coast has already waned, Cordero said projects such as the two inland ports—along with efforts by port authorities and other agencies—will help ensure goods can continue to move smoothly in the future.

“It’s game-changing,” Cordero said, praising the BNSF project. “I applaud BNSF for taking this huge step to address an issue that has been plaguing this complex for a number of years.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.