June 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Taller transit vans force Ford to modify rail cars to avoid shipment slowdowns

Modified rail cars helps Ford get Transits to customers 'faster and more cost-effectively,' said Chris Lemmink, vehicle logistics manager. (Ford Motor Co.)

Ford Motor Co.’s new Transit cargo vans are more than 110 inches tall. But each level of the two-story rail cars typically used to ship automobiles across the country is only 90 inches tall.

With no other cost-effective way to move the vans from its Kansas City Assembly Plant, the Dearborn automaker realized early in the design process — in 2010 — that it had a problem.

“This was definitely a first for us,” said Sean Grant, of Ford’s vehicle logistics planning and strategy team. “The standard rail car model has been our bread and butter since the 1950s.”

The solution: More than 350 rail cars were modified. The floor of the second level was raised 26 inches. That effectively boosted the ceiling of the first floor to 116 inches, more than enough room so that seven Transits could be parked there. By making that change, the headroom in the top level of each rail car was reduced from 90 inches to 64 inches; smaller models such as the Focus, Fusion, Fiesta and Mustang will ride the rails up there, Grant said.

The fixes were done soon enough that they didn’t slow any Transit shipments, Grant said.

Grant declined to say how much the rail car modifications cost but said Ford worked out the cost with Norfolk Southern, Canadian National and Union Pacific railways. It was cheaper to rework the rail cars than to ship every Transit by truck, he said.

“Use of these modified rail cars helps us to efficiently ship these large vehicles from our assembly plant, deliver them to our dealers and get them into the hands of our customers faster and more cost-effectively,” Chris Lemmink, Ford vehicle logistics manager, said in a statement.

Ford said it plans to ship Transit vans by truck to dealers within 500 miles of its Kansas City Assembly Plant, but will use the modified rail cars to ship Transits to places like San Antonio, Detroit and Canada.

The Transit replaces the popular E-Series line of vans and wagons, first sold in 1961 as the Ford Econoline.

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A Transit cargo van sits snug in a rail car, which had to be modified to ... (Ford)