Research highlights St. Louis’ superior qualities as freight hub
The Midwest China Hub Commission (MWHC) was formed in late 2007 to attract Chinese airfreight services to St. Louis’ Lambert airport. Currently, Chicago’s O’Hare facility is used to bring Chinese airfreight into the Midwest.
After three years of back-and-forth conversations and meetings, there is optimism about a successful outcome for the project, and work by faculty and students from the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering has contributed to the effort.
“Immediately after hearing about the project, my first reaction was that we at the university could be an asset,” said Charlie Nemmers, director of civil engineering’s Transportation Infrastructure Center. Subsequently, Engineering Dean James Thompson hosted a campuswide meeting and invited Jason Van Eaton, MCHC’s executive director to establish working relations with the commission.
In September 2010, Missouri Senators Claire McCaskill and Christopher “Kit” Bond traveled to China where they met with Wang Qishan, the vice premier of China. At that time a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Lambert and the China Air Transport Association (CATA), viewed as a positive sign that China was seriously considering the venture.
In addition to jobs created by China’s use of Lambert, area shipping companies also would get a boost. The potential of a new trade route back to China also could provide new markets for products produced in the Midwest.
“Everyone wanted it to move forward,” said Nemmers. “Brian Weiler, MoDOT’s representative on the commission called and asked for our help in advance of the delegation’s next visit. This is all about opportunities. If they grow, we grow.”
In early November, Chinese officials paid a five-day visit to St. Louis, meeting with business, civic and political leaders from the city and the state. In addition to tours of the airport, the visitors met with MoDOT representatives, area and state economic and business leaders and “freightfowarder” groups. The delegation also heard the results of logistics and performance evaluations prepared by Professor Jim Noble, Nemmers and two MU engineering graduate students.
Noble, an MU professor of industrial engineering and site director for the NSF Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution (CELDi), presented data from a freight in and freight out logistics simulation model comparing the two airports under consideration, aided by doctoral student Gaohao Luo. They worked free-of-charge believing that a Midwest China Hub agreement would be an investment for the entire state. “We invested,” Noble said simply.
Nemmers and doctoral student Lei Fang, teamed up to crunch the numbers on the economic benefits of Chinese cargo flights arriving in St. Louis versus landing in Chicago. Once freight is on the ground, transportation and traffic congestion significantly affects the time, cost and reliability of distribution.
Luo and Fang were able to translate presentations of the research results for the Chinese officials from CATA, the Civil Aviation Administration of China and Chinese cargo airlines.
Ultimately, Noble’s and Luo’s simulation model demonstrated a 100 percent probability that cargo flown into Lambert would reach the edge of the city, headed toward its intended destination, within 4.5 hours, and often in less time. Whereas the probability that freight leaving O’Hare would hit the highway out of Chicago in the same time period was demonstrated to be less than 30 percent.
The same simulation was run with the assumption that by 2020 there will be a 50 percent increase in cargo flights and a 10 percent increase in traffic congestion. The projections remained the same for St. Louis’ air and ground capabilities. However, predictions that freight landing in O’Hare would leave Chicago within the prescribed 4.5 hours dropped to 14 percent.
Nemmers and Fang took a look at economic issues of transporting freight from St. Louis out to the rest of the country. They worked with a broad range of data sources including shipping information from companies, a national mobility study done by the federal government, cost data from shippers and even Google maps. Mygistics, an innovative Kansas City traffic consulting firm, also provided significant assistance.
“Within 11 hours, you have access to 41 percent of the population of the U.S. from St. Louis, versus 35 percent from Chicago,” Nemmers said.
The pair compared shipments made by truck from both airports to Miami and to Indianapolis. And even though Chicago is closer to Indianapolis than St. Louis, the trip was eight percent faster from St. Louis.
“Basically, going through St. Louis turns out to be quicker, cheaper and more reliable than shipping through Chicago,” said Nemmers.
This kind of increased business in a Midwest airport brings in more support industries and also offers companies access to new markets in China. “Having Lambert as a cargo hub will make it a destination for Shanghai freight in the Midwest,” said Noble. “Other opportunities then become more attractive, for instance, now air cargo from Brazil first lands in the U.S. and must refuel before it heads to Shanghai. It could make that stop in St. Louis.
No formal decision came out of the most recent talks, though optimism among those favoring the project runs high. Nemmers felt that the Chinese representatives were highly interested, but that the airlines would like to do some test runs of their own before making a commitment.
“The College of Engineering was happy to make this investment to help grow business within St. Louis,” Nemmers said. “Our boats will all rise if the tide goes up.”