Michigan company touts container system to put loads in empty auto racks

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — A Detroit-area company aims to use its patented shipping containers to put loads of auto parts into multilevel railcars that otherwise would return empty to assembly plants.

Pro-Tech Group, which has designed containers to fit within the confines of auto racks that carry finished vehicles, has successfully completed pilot runs carrying pallets of wheel rims from California to Dearborn, Mich. 

“The benefit of this process is to eliminate the 66,000 railcars that come back empty” each year, Pro-Tech CEO Earle B. Higgins tells Trains News Wire.

Higgins would not disclose which railroads handled the test loads for an unnamed automaker. But a video on the company’s website shows a forklift loading containers onto an auto rack via a Union Pacific ramp. 

The 22-inch wheels are imported in California, sent to a manufacturer in the Golden State, and then distributed to automakers. 

Each of Pro-Tech’s containers holds two pallets of wheels. A bilevel auto rack can accommodate up to 18 of the containers. A trilevel auto rack, which is in greater supply than bilevels used to transport SUVs and other larger vehicles, also can handle the containers, but only on the lower two levels, says Higgins, who spent 27 years working in logistics at Chrysler and is familiar with the automotive supply chain.

What’s the size of the potential market for using multilevel equipment?

“I think it’s huge,” Higgins says. “Anytime you have 66,000 auto racks moving empty, there’s opportunities to grow. And the good thing is we can build our containers at the size of the commodities we move.”

The containers can be built to handle loads of different sizes. Higgins says the boxes could carry any kind of freight — not just auto parts — so long as the loads are not hazardous materials or food products.